Today's generation of high-earning professionals maintain that their personal fulfillment comes from their jobs and the hours they work. They should grow up says Thomas Barlow. Copyright The Financial Times Limited A friend of mine recently met a young American woman who was studying on a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford. She already had two degrees from top US universities, had worked as a lawyer and as a social worker in the US, and somewhere along the way had acquired a black belt in kung fu. Now, however, her course at Oxford was coming to an end and she was thoroughly angst-ridden about what to do next.
Her problem was no ordinary one. She couldn't decide whether she should make a lot of money as a corporate lawyer/management consultant, devote herself to charity work helping battered wives in disadvantaged communities, or go to Hollywood to work as a stunt double in kung fu films. What most struck my friend was not the disparity of this woman's choices, but the earnestness and bad grace with which she ruminated on them. It was almost as though she begrudged her own talents, opportunities and freedom - as though the world had treated her unkindly by forcing her to make such a hard choice. Her case is symptomatic of our times. In recent years, there has grown up a culture of discontent among the highly educated young,something that seems to flare up, especially, when people reach their late 20s and early 30s. It arises not from frustration caused by lack of opportunity, as may have been true in the past, but from an excess of possibilities. Most theories of adult developmental psychology have a special category for those in their late 20s and early 30s. Whereas the early to mid-20s are seen as a time to establish one's mode of living, the late 20s to early 30s are often considered a period of reappraisal. In a society where people marry and have children young, where financial burdens accumulate early, and where job markets are inflexible, such reappraisals may not last long. But when people manage to remain free of financial or family burdens, and where the perceived opportunities for alternative careers are many,the reappraisal is likely to be angst-ridden and long lasting. Among no social group is this more true than the modern, international,professional elite: that tribe of young bankers,lawyers, consultants and managers for whom financial, familial, personal, corporate and (increasingly)national ties have become irrelevant. Often they grew up in one country, were educated in another, and are now working in a third. They are independent, well paid, and enriched by experiences that many of their parents could only dream of. Yet, by their late 20s, many carry a sense of disappointment: that for all their opportunities, freedoms and achievements, life has not delivered quite what they had hoped. At the heart of this disillusionment lies a new attitude towards work. The idea has grown up, in recent years, that work should not be just a means to an end a way to make money, support a family, or gain social prestige - but should provide a rich and fulfilling experience in and of itself. Jobs are no longer just jobs; they are lifestyle options.
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