When Anna Wilking graduated from Barnard College in 1999 with a degree in sociology, the jobs appeared to be hers for the picking.
But employers would have to wait.
Ms. Wilking decided to go abroad to teach English and learn Spanish. Young, bright, and energetic, she figured she could afford to take her time. And it couldn't hurt to layer her résumé with experiences that would show her to be inquisitive and open to new situations.
By the time she wrapped up a Fulbright scholarship in Madrid last summer - setting her up to work on a future doctorate in Latin American studies - Wilking was ready for a day job.
She expected to find a job with the city council working on behalf of New York's Latino communities. But she was told there were no openings.
"It's been a real stumble for me," says Wilking, who has spent the past year balancing four or five part-time jobs - from working in a video store to waitressing. "After college I thought I could get any job.... Not being able to find full-time employment has been a slap in the face."
For many of those who graduated from college in the go-go atmosphere of the late 1990s, professional goals seemed as attainable as gym memberships. But for those who took time off to loaf, travel, or even attend graduate school, the employment picture has changed. Many opportunities dried up as the economy slid.
"There are a lot of levels of frustration out there," says Michael Cahill, director of Syracuse University's Center for Career Services. "[I tell job seekers] to try and erase the memory of two or three years ago. It is a different world now."
Those just leaving graduate schools are among the most disillusioned.
A few years ago, Kristen Messner left her job as a real estate tax consultant to pursue an MBA at New York University's Stern School of Business. She hoped to eventually become an investment banker, but changed her mind after working in the field last summer.
Besides, Ms. Messner says, campus recruiting by investment-banking firms was a "skeleton" of what it had been in the past. Upon graduation this spring, she plans to return to her former employer, Ernst & Young, in a position similar to her old one - albeit with a nice raise and more responsibility.
Many workers are feeling "stuck" in today's market. In a Roper survey last September, 81 percent of employees said that in this economy, many people stay in jobs they dislike, just to have a job.
But Messner considers herself fortunate. Many of her peers still have no prospects in their industries of choice, she says. "A lot of people have had to scramble ... and change focus," applying for jobs in totally unrelated fields.
Still, feeling grateful to have a job is something many in their 20s are not digesting well. In fact, many job-seekers feel annoyed by today's prospects, says Barry Miller, a career counselor at Pace University in New York. "The world is not open the way they expected it to be," he says.
"It's a lesson in the marketplace," says John Baldoni, a private leadership consultant in Ann Arbor, Mich. "Every experience makes you a more valuable employee."
Wilking agrees. She says not being able to find full-time employment has dealt a blow to her self-esteem. But she remains upbeat about her long-term career goals.
"I'll figure it out," she says. "It's just a greater challenge now."