ATLANTA — The job market for this year's crop of 1.4 million college graduates is the brightest in four years. US firms expect to increase their college hiring by 14 percent this year, according to one survey.
So why did Evan Diamond, a recent University of Georgia graduate, fork over $100 to attend a life-skills conference here last week?
"Things haven't worked out how I planned, which has been somewhat eye-opening to me," says Mr. Diamond, after attending a session called "Life 101 - The Big Picture." He quit his first job, in radio marketing, because he didn't advance as fast as he had expected.
That desire to score the good life right away is a defining trait of Diamond's generation, observers say. To confront the anxiety stemming from this unrealistic expectation, many of them are turning to life consultants.
Life coaches are the upbeat advice-givers known for helping harried CEOs acquire work-life balance. But today, more of them are playing Dr. Phil for 20-somethings.
In some ways, it's a natural tactic for a generation that grew up watching their parents pay people to solve their problems. But critics wonder whether such shortcuts undermine the value of real, sometimes bitter, experiences in building character.
"They're saying, 'I'm trying to do it better than before, I want to get it right, and I'm used to people helping me do that' - thus creating a whole new industry of post-college mentors," says Trudy Sopp, founder of the Centre for Organization Effectiveness (COE) in San Diego.
It's a growing industry, featuring numerous book titles, Internet discussion boards, life coaches, and workshops. Television networks are getting hip, too. "How To Get The Guy," a new ABC reality show that premieres June 12, employs life coaches to help young women score the perfect mate.
Last week's "Making It In The City" conference in Atlanta featured advice on everything from how to make a cold call to how to tell when a date is out of your league.
"The advice given to the previous generation is often inapplicable to what 20-somethings are experiencing today," says Marcos Salazar, author of "The Turbulent Twenties Survival Guide." "It's ridiculous the amount of e-mail I get from people who want help."
Tim Bono, a lanky Christian, just graduated with a landscape architecture degree. He wants to combine his missionary work with his expertise - and move to a new city: Portland, Ore. "I have faith in what I'm doing, but I see a lot of people get depressed about their life not working out the way they thought it would," he says. "This conference is helping to alleviate some of that for me."
Experts say today's college graduates - the front end of Generation Y - differ from their baby-boomer parents, who developed a reputation for navel-gazing. Neither do they have the same independent, sometimes cynical streak that defined their Generation X predecessors. The current crop, observers say, is coddled, accustomed to their parents hiring tutors or college-application consultants.
"This group isn't about hard knocks; they're an overscheduled generation that had piano lessons and tutors and very little free time to make mistakes," says Ms. Sopp. "It doesn't surprise me that they would seek advice, because they don't have a lot of experience."
At the same time, they face a sense of the diminishing worth of a college degree, and a hyper-competitive environment on college campuses. In short, their outlook on working life is often unrealistic.
"There's so much pressure put on you in high school to do well so that you can go to a good college, but no one thinks much beyond that," says Abby Miller, a higher education policy analyst at JBL Associates in Bethesda, Md.. "They're told to conquer the world, to shape their dreams, but they're not always told to expect these ordinary challenges."
There's another factor in the rush toward life consultants, experts say: parents. Human resources managers are increasingly noticing that parents are accompanying their children to job interviews, according to a COE survey. Indeed, several attendees at the Atlanta sessions were there at the behest of mom and dad.
"Parents are cognizant of the fact that two, three years out of college, their kids are inadequately employed," says Peter Morici, an economist at the University of Maryland in College Park and also a father of a recent college grad. "They want these kids settled, because, frankly, they're getting to the outer limits of their ability to help them."
On the other hand, Mr. Morici says, post-college mentors may be preying on insecurities that grads pick up from college rankings and starting salary charts.
"What consultants do is play on the frustration that state university graduates have that is engendered by recruitment biases in places like Wall Street," he says.
But Diamond is glad he came. "I have some new ideas about how to move ahead. I have lots to offer, but communicating that to someone is the hard part."