Living: Proceeding With Caution

The twentysomething generation is balking at work, marriage and baby-boomer values. Why are today's young adults so skeptical?

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Most of all, young people want constant feedback from supervisors. In contrast with the baby boomers, who disdained evaluations as somehow undemocratic, people in their 20s crave grades, performance evaluations and reviews. They want a quantification of their achievement. After all, these were the children who prepped diligently for college-aptitude exams and learned how to master Rubik's Cube and Space Invaders. They are consummate game players and grade grubbers. "Unlike yuppies, younger people are not driven from within, they need reinforcement," says Penny Erikson, 40, a senior vice president at the Young & Rubicam ad agency, which has hired many recent college graduates. "They prefer short-term tasks with observable results."

Money is still important as an indicator of career performance, but crass materialism is on the wane. Marian Salzman, 31, an editor at large for the collegiate magazine CV, believes the shift away from the big-salary, big-city role model of the early '80s is an accommodation to the reality of a depressed Wall Street and slack economy. Many boomers expected to have made millions by the time they reached 30. "But for today's graduates, the easy roads to fast money have dried up," says Salzman.

Climbing the corporate ladder is trickier than ever at a time of widespread corporate restructuring. When recruiters talk about long-term job security, young adults know better. Says Victoria Ball, 41, director of Career Planning Services at Brown University: "Even IBM, which always said it would never lay off -- well, now they're doing it too." Between 1987 and the end of this year, Big Blue will have shed about 23,000 workers through voluntary incentive programs.

Most of all, young workers want job gratification. Teaching, long disdained as an underpaid and underappreciated profession, is a hot prospect. Enrollment in U.S. teaching programs increased 61% from 1985 to 1989. And more graduates are expressing interest in public-service careers. "The glory days of Wall Street represented an extreme," says Janet Abrams, 29, a Senate aide who regularly interviews young people looking for jobs on Capitol Hill. "Now I'm hearing about kids going to the National Park Service."

Welcome to the era of hedged bets and lowered expectations. Young people increasingly claim they are willing to leave careers in middle gear, without making that final climb to the top. The leitmotiv of the new age: second place seems just fine. But young adults are flighty if they find their workplace harsh or inflexible. "The difference between now and then was that we had a higher threshold for unhappiness," says editor Salzman. "I always expected that a job would be 80% misery and 20% glory, but this generation refuses to pay its dues."


Smart and savvy, the twentysomething group is the best-educated generation in U.S. history. A record 59% of 1988 high school graduates enrolled in college, compared with 49% in the previous decade. The lesson they have taken to heart: education is a means to an end, the ticket to a cherished middle-class life- style. "The saddest thing of all is that they don't have the quest to understand things, to understand themselves," says Alexander Astin, whose UCLA-based Higher Education Research Institute has been measuring changing attitudes among college freshman for 24 years.

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