Articles > 20-somethings: the work angst generation

20-somethings: the work angst generation
Globe & Mail, December 16, 2005

Barbara Moses, Ph.D, is an international speaker, work/life expert, and best-selling author of Dish: Midlife Women Tell the Truth About Work, Relationships, and the Rest of Life.

I spent my twenties obsessing. I'd look at co-workers and friends and think: "They seem to have it so together. How come I'm such a neurotic mess not knowing what I want to do?" I believed there was a perfect job out there with my name on it, but didn't know how I'd ever find it. Much like romantic love, I thought I would be hit by a bolt of lightning.

When I talk to today's twenty-somethings in my work as a career consultant, I hear much the same anxieties being expressed. But there are some differences. This generation of workers talks much more openly about their career concerns, and in a much richer vocabulary. They also have higher expectations of work: It should be fun, provide time for personal life and allow them to apply their skills in an interesting way.

They are the beneficiaries -- but also, in some way, the victims -- of a steadily rising tide of career consciousness in our society. And with higher consciousness and more career options, in some ways, the anxiety is even greater.

Here are a few of the most frequently asked career questions I hear from young professionals:

How do I know this is the right work for me?

If you're asking that, you're not alone. Most young people do not know what they want to do.

With the high costs of education and student debt and the panoply of options, there is more pressure on young people to feel they need to get their career choices right. Parental pressure just adds to this toxic stew, with comments like, "When I was your age, I didn't worry about finding my passion. Just get a job that will provide a good living."

Although career angst doesn't feel good, I actually worry more about people who have made early career decisions than those who say they don't have a clue. These are the years when you're supposed to be figuring out and experimenting with what you want to do with the rest of your life.

So how can you tell whether you're in the right place? Drill down. Think about the which university courses held your attention. Think about what you liked and disliked about all the jobs you have had, including casual ones. Do your friends come to you for advice, and if so on what types of issues?

Through successive approximations, most of us end up in a spot where the work feels good. Unless you are a masochist, you move toward work that is satisfying and earns praise -- and away from work that you find difficult or boring, and for which you are criticized.

The truth is, there is no one perfect job out there. Some work will feel better than other work.
Even if you are doing a job that does not feel right, it provides opportunity for you to learn about your likes and dislikes, strengths and other arenas of opportunity.

Why don't I ever get feedback from my boss?

Are you sure you aren't getting feedback, or are you just not paying attention to it? I hear similar comments from people I mentor whom I think I have drowned in feedback. I have realized they don't recognize it because I didn't introduce my words with "I want to give you feedback."

Often, no news is good news. Managers are so busy that, unfortunately, they may not comment on your performance unless you screw up. But if you feel a feedback vacuum, make an appointment with your manager. Be specific about what you're seeking comment on, whether it's how you handled a project or skills you want to develop. If you just tell your boss you want feedback without providing direction, you will not have a productive conversation.

How do I get promoted?

You need to do two things -- perform at an exceptional level, and ensure that others know about your stellar performance.

You don't want to be obnoxiously self-promoting but you must still inform managers who are too busy to notice your accomplishments. Send an e-mail or meet occasionally to review them. Be visible. Throw your hat into the ring for high-profile assignments, especially ones dear to the organization.

And be realistic. I often hear managers characterize their staff as "so impatient. They've been in a job for two weeks and they think they are ready for a promotion." Okay, I exaggerate, but that's what it feels like to them. Keep that in mind.

My boss has no life. Does that mean I can't, either?

While work-life balance is on everyone's agenda today, there are generational differences in expectations about what balance looks like.

Fortysomething bosses say, "Get real. All you care about is getting to the gym or hooking up with your friends after work. When I was your age, if my boss asked me to work late, I did. It's part of the deal, if you want to get ahead."

Twentysomething staff say, in turn, " Don't hold yourself up as a model. You're out of shape, grumpy, never see your family and your boss doesn't appreciate you."

Recognize that you and your boss look at the world differently. Still, it's up to you to manage your boss. Communicate what personal time you are and are not prepared to give up.

Show awareness of his or her needs. For example, you may need to pull a few all-nighters for an important project, but it's reasonable to get some free time in return.

If your boss doesn't get it and you don't feel the effort-reward equation is warranted by the skills you are learning, look for another job. If you resent being at work, you are neither happy nor an effective contributor.

I'm not learning anything. How do I get development?

Most jobs provide more developmental opportunities than people recognize. Be creative in identifying them.

Volunteer for a cross-functional task force, ask your boss if you can sit in on a meeting with a client, take advantage of organization-sponsored "lunch and learns." Before submitting a piece of work, ask yourself, "What else can I add to this to make it more complete?"

Be curious about what others in your department are working on. Avail yourself of colleagues' wisdom. Bounce ideas off them and pick their brains to broaden your skills and knowledge.

Follow up with people from different work units you have met. Learn about what they are working on and the problems they encounter.

I hate politics. How can I avoid them?

Politics have gotten a bad rap because people don't understand what they really mean. They think it's about sucking up to important people, using people or spinning the truth to tell management what it wants to hear.

Although these are examples of political behaviour, they don't define the arena of politics. Politics is also about being strategic in how you pitch something, framing requests in light of management needs, influencing the right people to get needed resources and understanding what is really going on in your organization, and why and how decisions are made.

Information picked up at meetings does not tell the whole story. The griping and gossip provide the nuances of people's motivations and who the real decision-makers are.
Pay attention to such political undercurrents.

Ways to get ahead

Wondering how to get ahead in your career? Here are some career-management tips for the twentysomething crowd:


  • Find mentors. Seek out one or more mentors to be a sounding board, offer advice to you on how to navigate the organizational politics, and provide feedback on your strengths and weaknesses.

  • Boost your skills portfolio. Eavesdrop on important meetings, volunteer for task forces, participate in training and development courses, ask your boss for a project that will stretch you, shadow someone who is doing work that interests you.

  • Pursue higher education. If a lack of skills is hindering you, go back to school. To get more specialist skills, enroll in a part-time graduate program. Ensure your education gives you the broadest options. You don't want to wake up at 40 and find a lack of graduate education is a constant impediment.

  • Expand your network. Develop a network that includes people from different occupations and industries.

  • Take advantage of opportunities. Look at all potential experiences in terms of what you can learn from them. Don't think solely about the effort-reward equation.

  • Understand boomer bosses. What seems reasonable to you may not go down well with them. Keep in mind differing mind sets.

Understand there are no right career choices. Every job provides an opportunity for you to think about your best fit. Don't specialize too young. Keep your options open.