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SANDY BANKS

College just the pregame

May 31, 2008|SANDY BANKS

At least this was a four-day week.

That was the only consolation I could offer my daughter as she groaned through our ride to the airport Monday night, mourning the end of her holiday trip home and dreading the dawn of another workweek.

"I don't want to go to work," she kept saying, sounding vaguely like the petulant third-grader I used to have to drag out of bed some mornings.

It's not her job she hates; at her Silicon Valley company, she feels challenged and appreciated. She's chafing at what every newly minted adult must face -- the prospect of 40 years of 40-plus-hour weeks, no reprieve.

The realization has been creeping up on her and her friends since last year, when they graduated from college, spent a leisurely summer, then launched their careers.

Christmas wasn't so bad. My daughter had a weeklong vacation, a bonus in her check and the chance to play Santa Claus for once. At spring break, she and her friends pined for a week in Cabo but settled for a weekend in Las Vegas instead.

But Memorial Day was a neon sign they couldn't ignore. Three days off, then back to work. Welcome to the straitjacket of Grown-Up World.

For 17 years -- from kindergarten through college graduation -- our kids move through life tuned to seasonal rhythms. Memorial Day always delivered a singular message: Put away the textbooks and bring out the bikinis.

Not anymore. For recent grads like my daughter and her friends, this Memorial Day did not usher in a long unbroken summer, but was a simple holiday . . . and a chance to take stock of evolving new lives.

I've heard complaints percolating through the group of friends and talked with some of her friends this week. They're smart young women who excelled in college, made their parents proud and couldn't wait to strut their stuff when they got out.

Now, they're commiserating about grouchy bosses, tiny paychecks and a ceaseless routine of mind-numbing chores. And what they wouldn't give for a return to pub nights, frat parties and a schedule with no Friday classes.

Now, the popular sorority girl is an awkward young intern, eating alone at her desk. The Phi Beta Kappa is assigned to copy memos and schlep coffee. And the National Charity League deb works for a nonprofit and is struggling to pay the rent on her apartment.

They're grateful to be working, they're quick to say. And they're smart enough to tell me not to use their full names. They're paranoid about being fired, even if they do feel stuck.

Working "is a complete 180 from life as it used to be," said Courtney, a would-be law student working for a downtown law firm. (Note to her boss: Courtney loves her job. Please don't fire her!)

"We graduated with the feeling we were going to change the world. Now we're at the bottom of the totem pole, going through the motions," she said. "I wonder, why did I stay up so late, get all those good grades, then have to start at square one, photocopying and making binders."

They knew they'd have to pay their dues, they just never imagined how uncertain and invisible they'd feel. In school, grades were an immediate barometer of success. In the workplace, compliments are hard to come by and there's not always a connection between effort expended and the dollar figure on a paycheck.

Their angst is reflected in wry declarations on Facebook pages and sarcastic cellphone messages:

"Is it normal to hate your job so much, you hope you're hit by a bus on the way to work?" said one text I glimpsed on my daughter's phone.

It's a joke, but there's no smiley face.

It's easy to dismiss them as whiny Gen Y slackers -- coached, coddled and over-parented into thinking that everything revolves around "me."

But they're also the most educated workforce this country has ever produced, and it's hard for them to imagine that a satisfying career begins at the copy machine.

I don't blame this generation for regarding a lifetime of long days, ledgers and legal briefs uneasily.

Some of them watched their parents turn into workaholics, then suffer through midlife job loss and downsizing.

Surveys of Gen Y'ers show they don't plan to live for work, but work to live.

For now, I'm counseling hard work and patience, building a career is a long-term process, satisfaction builds gradually. I can't help but push the nose-to-the-grindstone mentality that my parents bequeathed to me.

And I'm reminding my daughter that she couldn't have afforded those cute leopard print, peep-toe stilettos she bought last weekend without that paycheck coming in next week.

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sandy.banks@latimes.com

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