20-somethings meet the new new economy

An MBA is laid off on the first day of work, an idealist nearly loses her car, and a dotcomer seeking stability says, 'Give me a bureaucracy!'

Last spring, recruiters – the kind boasting five-figure signing bonuses and hosting tailgate parties under tents – showed up at Drew Snow's school, practically handing him plum job offers.

He and his four housemates graduated from Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business in May with high-salaried investment-banking, high-tech, and consulting jobs.

But – coveted as their jobs were – Mr. Snow and his friends didn't plan to keep them. Each had ambitious plans to spend a year or two building up some experience and then to move on to someplace even more impressive, says Snow.

A year and a recession later, their fat paychecksand grand plans have given way to unemployment checks and revised career paths.

"Five of us shared a house together. All five of us graduated with these amazing jobs. One of us is still employed," says Snow. One of his Dartmouth housemates received a layoff notice minutes into the first morning of his new job.

This nation's 20-something workers were hit hard by the recession of 2001.

A 25-year-old in the workforce today grew up in a boom economy, was in junior high when the last recession ended, and entered the job market at the height of high-tech frenzy, when unemployment for workers under 25 was as low as 6 percent. Suddenly the recession hit, and unemployment rocketed. During the first quarter of 2002, unemploy- ment rocketed. During the first quarter of 2002, unemployment has averaged nearly 10 percent for the under-25 group.

"We're horribly skewed – we think amazing is normal," says Stephanie Boraas, a 20-something economist with the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Her assessment is that maybe her generation needed its expectations of the job market tempered by a little hardship.

Indeed, as the dotcom arrogance burns off and the dust of the recession settles, young workers and economists themselves are learning some valuable lessons.

In the heyday of high-tech and dotcom, today's 20-somethings were notorious for their "free agent" mentality. They accepted and abandoned jobs as though they didn't owe anybody anything, complained older workers and employers. But as the past year's layoffs have shown, many companies felt at least as little loyalty to their employees.

Can't go back to old model

Now there's a growing consensus among economists and labor historians that those dotcom babies weren't just self-centered – they were onto something.

"A lot of people, during the most exuberant days of the boom, thought 'Oh, all these free agents are disloyal job-hoppers. They don't get it: This is just part of the business cycle; this is going away,' " says Bruce Tulgan, founder of the management training firm RainmakerThinking. "I say to them 'You didn't get it. We can't go back to that old model. Welcome to the new economy.' "

An axiom of that new economy key to young workers is: Find security in job mobility, not job stability.

Constantly shifting labor needs are the hallmark of the modern global market, says Glenn MacDonald, professor of economics at Washington University in St. Louis. What that means for individuals, he says, is that nobody starting out in the workforce today will stay with a job for 30 years the way their grandparents – and even many of their parents – did. Instead, they'll be "learning things that last. Used to be, if you were an auto worker and you got laid off, you only knew that one trade. Now there's less emphasis on job-specific learning, and more on the kind of durable skills they can use anywhere," says Mr. MacDonald.

Some young workers still reeling from the swift reversal of fortune talk wistfully about the old career model. Snow, the once-high-flying Dartmouth MBA, says now he'd rather find a company he can stick with, the way his father did, than "start over every couple of years."

Job shopping

But others remain undaunted, seeing the chance to try numerous jobs as an opportunity for a more varied and fulfilling career.

"My parents, I'm sure, when they started looking for jobs, were after something where they could serve 30, 40 years – get the 25-year commemorative clock, that bread and butter," says Sigmund Gee, who has been living at home since he lost his job with a San Francisco consulting firm over a year ago. "Most people my age are shopping around."

But in the late '90s, 20-somethings shopped for jobs more because they could than because they had to. Now, Mr. Tulgan says, "If you're gonna succeed in the new economy, you need to be keeping your options open. Not because it's more fun or it's more gratifying, but because you have no other choice."

As young people struggle to get by on unemployment checks – or without them – the heady promise of the boom has given way, for many, to a sharper sense of which career goals they can afford to keep.

Buying better jobs

MacDonald explains that as unparalleled technological growth over the past century has made time an increasingly valuable workplace commodity, people have been using the exchange value of their work lives to buy jobs they find more fulfilling.

"As people grow wealthier, they buy more of all kinds of things – and by taking a lower salary for a job they'll enjoy more, they buy a better job," Dr. MacDonald explains.

Today's youngest workers didn't invent this idea, he says, they just subscribe to it more than previous generations.

This priority was obvious for Kate Virostko, who lost her job teaching HIV prevention to Massachusetts juvenile offenders in December. She grew up expecting that she'd always be able to find work she cared about – and since graduating from college in 1998 she has, though none of her jobs has paid more than $23,000 a year.

She survived through the winter without income by volunteering in exchange for room and board at a Boston food pantry for the homeless. She held out for a fulfilling job that came last month – teaching sex education in a juvenile detention center – even though she went without health insurance and nearly lost her car.

"I know it's an incredible privilege to have a job that's exciting and satisfying, that I look forward to going to," Ms. Virostko says, "but I've been really spoiled, in that I've had a job that I was excited by since I graduated from college.... I was totally invested in my work [in my previous job] ... and loved it. I'm really scared – I'm genuinely anxious about having a job where it feels like work."

For Audrey Diehl, her layoff last October exposed a new set of priorities.

Before she lost her job – at an overambitious L.A. dotcom where people brought their dogs to work – it had never occurred to her to wonder if her employer was a viable company, a good bet for the long haul. "I was more thinking: 'In a year I'll leave and go somewhere else,' not, 'In a year they'll go under and I won't have a job anymore," she says.

'Give me a bureaucracy!'

"After I was laid off, I was like, 'Give me a bureaucracy! I want a corporation that's not gonna go under. I want someone in the stock market," she says. She accepted a job editing for Teen Magazine's website. The magazine recently folded; so far its web employees have kept their jobs.

"I think a lot of people [my age, who lost their jobs] got their eyes opened about choosing jobs at companies that are actually viable," says Diehl.

For Ashish Vora – who lost his first job out of college after three months with the e-business consulting firm Scient –being laid off brought home the central contradiction of new economy employer-employee relationships.

On one hand, he says, "a company can just go lop off 15,000 people." But at the same time, because "anybody can create a website and a business," the high-tech boom opened the doors of popular innovation to young people in a way that's still felt today.

The inadvertent success of sites like Napster, that began as "one kid's pet project," says Mr. Vora, has inspired other young workers. "In the last few years, the individual [worker] is worth a lot more than they ever were before," he says, because no one knows who the next big thing may come from.

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