There are also significant declines in the milestones a typical 20-something has reached. Using benchmarks such as graduating, leaving home, getting a full-time job, marriage, having a baby and financial independence, the ASA found new trends. In 2000, 46 percent of women and 31 percent of men had reached those markers by age 30. In 1960, 77 percent of women and 65 percent of men had reached those same markers by age 30. Among 25-year-old women, 70 percent in 1960 had attained traditional adult status, as defined by reaching those benchmarks, whereas in 2000 only 25 percent had done so.
The economy is a contributing factor. Today's 20-somethings will be the first who won't do better than their parents. A college education doesn't deliver the same promises that it once did -- with a 53 percent increase in enrollment since 1970, the qualified competition for a job has intensified. Attaining a decent standard of living today requires a college degree -- to reach the level that their parents have achieved often requires a professional degree.
Many 20-somethings want to attend graduate school, but the thought of additional debt is almost too much to bear. Many postings on quarterlife crisis.com reflect the worry, "Will I find it just as hard to find a good job when I have my graduate degree?"
Wilner suggested that graduate school is not a way to avoid the "real world." She said 20-somethings should only return to school "because you already know you enjoy working in a particular field and want to progress in that area."
In Atlanta, Freedman worries about her career. She works in the sourcing department for Carter's, which makes baby clothes.
"Am I in the right profession, because if not I need to figure that out now. I don't want to start at the bottom at age 30. Am I in the right city? I have no idea how to answer these questions so I keep plugging along praying for an epiphany," she said.
For those who might not know where their passion lies, places like the nonprofit AIMS Aptitude Testing in Dallas offer help. Roughly 30 percent of the 900 people it has tested each year since 1976 are between the ages of 23 and 39.
For $750 and a day-and-a-half of your time, a battery of tests is given to determine natural strengths.
"We are testing for memory aptitudes, design aptitudes, musical ability, three-dimensional thinking, how quickly and accurately you can do paperwork, dexterity, and creativity levels," said founder Irvin Shambaugh. "We also do an interest test to make sure that what we're recommending are things you are interested in."
Test administrators interpret the results and provide examinees with college or career suggestions based on the combination of the individual's aptitudes and characteristics. To determine the success of the system, a follow-up questionnaire is sent out a few years after the individual has completed the program. In these surveys, the percentage of "satisfied" and "very satisfied" responses to the different questions was in the high 80s to low 90s.