The night before the final six designers on Project Runway's season seven were to face their next challenge, Maya Luz lay awake in bed, racked with doubt. She was thrilled to be cast on the series — a bona fide career-maker for the promising 22-year-old design school grad — but as the weeks of filming went on, something felt increasingly off. "I believed in my work, but while I was always in the top three or safe, I never won a challenge, and that really messed with my head," she says. The show's nonstop hours, constant camera presence, and rigid work rules (contestants aren't permitted to listen to music while designing and can't do any research before diving into a challenge) also threw her off. It all just felt like too much, too soon. "I started to feel like a puppet, as if I were losing myself, and I realized I wanted a sense of control back," Luz says.
The next morning, she told producers she wanted out. After a heart-to-heart with Tim Gunn — "She was on a trajectory to be a finalist," he says — and a quick announcement to her shocked castmates, Luz packed her things and boarded a plane for her mother's house in Naples, Florida. "I felt this huge sense of relief," she adds, "like I was finally free."
Used to be that career burnout was the occupational hazard of 40-something breadwinners. Not so anymore. "I've definitely had more 20-something women coming to me because they're heading toward burning out," says Debra Condren, Ph.D., a New York—based psychologist and author of Ambition Is Not a Dirty Word. "Work for them is about living out their ideals, not slaving away in an office. So they tend to get disillusioned faster when their jobs don't measure up to their standards."
That's happening more and more often these days. A recent survey by The Conference Board found that 64 percent of workers under 25 were unsatisfied with their jobs, versus just 44 percent in 1987 (and still higher than any other demographic in the workforce). Condren attributes the historic levels of malaise to intense workplace demands triggered by the recession. And instead of re-evaluating their expectations, many disillusioned overachievers are giving notice rather than settling for less than they'd hoped for.
"From day one, I was on a path destined for success," says Amber O'Neal, a 32-year-old business school grad from Atlanta. "I landed my dream job in brand management, was making six figures by age 24, even bought my own house." Her dirty secret: She hated it. "Every night I was thinking, Is this it? This is my pot of gold at the end of the rainbow?" When O'Neal asked for a week off to fly home to Chicago to care for her cancer-stricken father, her boss told her he had to think about it. That's when she decided to quit. She now runs her own personal-training business. "Sure, I could be making more money, but I'm less stressed, my adult acne is gone, and I'm doing something I'm passionate about," she enthuses. "No more numbered vacation days for me."
A recurring gripe among the youngest members of the workforce: careers that impinge upon their personal lives. "I had a 24-year-old client who worked for a news organization, and it was understood that to get ahead, she needed to forgo holidays, give up vacations, and work until all hours of the night," says Katherine Crowley, a Manhattan psychotherapist who specializes in workplace issues. "She felt trapped and drowning in a world that allowed her no personal life." She asked for a three-month sabbatical, an unprecedented request from someone so junior. Still, her employers consented. When she returned from leave, she demanded a shorter workweek that also allowed her to leave early two nights a week to attend yoga. It didn't take long for the cushy arrangement to fall apart. By year's end, Crowley reports, her client quit to become a documentary filmmaker.
But was hers really a case of burnout, or just unrealistic expectations about the demands of a high-octane career? Depends on whom you ask. "There's a huge sense of entitlement," says Gunn, former chair of the fashion program at Parsons the New School for Design. "I'd have students walk into my office the first week of classes and say, 'I want to be in a new section. I don't like this faculty member' or 'This professor doesn't know X.' Well, guess what? If I were hiring you for a job, you wouldn't get to choose your boss. In my world, you're dealt a hand of cards and you play that hand. If you don't want to play it, you can withdraw."
In fact, that's exactly what's happening. According to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, Gen Yers are ditching the corporate world to launch their own businesses (or work for themselves) at a much faster rate than their Gen X predecessors. Tania M., a 25-year-old marketing manager for a Portland, Oregon, design firm, went unemployed for eight months before she finally landed her current gig. But after only a year, she's planning to give notice, deciding instead to pursue a writing career. Her pals, she adds, are contemplating similar shifts. "We're all working crazy hours and being pulled in directions we've never been pulled in before. This is not what we expected our professional lives to be like." Her last straw: getting admonished by the boss for taking an entire personal day to put her cat to sleep. "He said that I'd been portraying too much emotion. But if he thinks having human reactions is a sign of weakness or immaturity, that's his problem. I can't change who I am to conform to a job."
But what Tania defines as conformity, her more seasoned colleagues describe as standard operating procedure at work. "I started at the bottom in a PR firm — I answered phones, picked up lunch for my boss, did anything that needed to be done," says Sabrina McLaughlin, owner of a Panama City—based marketing firm. "I'm a 30-year-old Gen Xer — this is a particularly sore subject for me because I am so close in age to many of my employees. But what I see as boredom, they see as burnout. At one point in my 20s, I was teaching, running a successful company, finishing up my graduate degree, and raising a newborn. Please, they have no idea what burnout is."
Project Runway's Luz insists she has no intention of quitting the fashion industry. (She recently wrapped up an internship with British designer Hannah Marshall and is currently looking for a job in a New York fashion house.) "Women, especially those my age, can feel pressured to follow a certain path, but I think it's important for your sanity to stand up for what's right for you," she says. Still, a sense of what if? lingers. Luz admits that she welled up watching her former rivals send their designs down the runway during New York Fashion Week last February. But the moment passed quickly. She adds defiantly, "Just because I left the show doesn't mean you won't be seeing more of me."