A British chief executive told me that she recently watched a client company talking to its staff. The employees, mostly young, listened to the cutbacks that were coming. They were incredulous and petulant. The watching chief executive thought to herself: “You guys don’t know what’s going to hit you.”

This recession has already hurt people such as over-mortgaged home owners and bank staff. But employers and headhunters predict a real shock for one group: those in their 20s and early 30s who have never experienced an economic downturn before.

Employers call them different names – Generation Y or the Millennials – but agree about one thing: they are the most pampered employees ever, with an overwhelming sense of entitlement.

Those were labels once pinned to their parents, the baby boomers who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s. But the baby boomers have lived through several downturns: the aftermath of the 1970s oil price rises, recession in the early 1990s and the dotcom bust a decade later.

For the baby boomers’ children, mass unemployment will be something new. The shock will be all the greater because the best educated of them have had it their own way ever since they entered the workplace.

In the past few years, employers have competed furiously for staff, and those applying for jobs could name both their price and their work conditions.

“We were begging graduates to work for us. We were bribing them,” said the British chief executive, who asked not to be named.

I spent last week talking to employers, headhunters, university academics and young workers on both sides of the Atlantic.

There was surprising unanimity. The young workers I spoke to agreed that the past few years had been a cushy time for them.

Those most in demand could demand time off for other interests, whether that was travelling, skiing or training for a triathlon. BlackBerries and mobile phones meant that working from home was common – and there was often no one paying attention to how much work was done.

To the baby boomers, work-life balance usually meant having enough time to spend with the family. To their children, it often meant time off to practise the piano.

But generalisations are dangerous. Some workers in their early 30s remember the end of the dotcom boom. Some even lost jobs then.

And hardships do not come only from work. A university faculty member I spoke to pointed out that one of her students was a single mother. Others had parents they had to care for. Having an easy time at work is no protection against parents’ divorce or family illness.

Many young workers hoping to enter the workforce in the past few months have already been knocked back by the new reality. Some companies that had offered jobs to graduates have postponed the starting dates. Others are asking recruits to come in to be reinterviewed. This is particularly tough for those with student loans and large mortgages.

One London-based headhunter told me job-seekers would have to moderate their wage demands, which had been pushed up during the years of plenty, particularly by the investment banks.

Many will fail to find jobs or lose the ones they have. Will they cope? They will have to. Their parents had an easy time during the 1960s and early 1970s – provided that, in the US, they were able to avoid the military draft. When economic downturn came, they had to adjust.

In the UK in the early 1980s, unemployment among would-be professionals was common. Many were grateful for whatever work there was.

Some of the younger generation of workers have already begun to make the adjustment.

I heard last week of a 26-year-old banker who had recently lost her job. She was lucky: as well as being a banker, she was an enthusiastic baker. She is being paid by the bank until the end of March and has already started setting up a cake-making business.

In one sense, today’s younger generation are better prepared for economic hard times than their parents or grandparents: they were not expecting jobs for life.

Nor did they ever think they would have defined benefit pensions, calculated as a proportion of salary at retirement. (One young worker was astonished when I explained the idea to her.)

However pampered Generation Y may have been, switching jobs and reconsidering careers are second nature to them.

Time off to train for a triathlon will probably be harder to come by. As to who was responsible for these unsustainable perks, the British chief executive has no doubts: blame the parents, or at least the employers of the parents’ generation. “It’s our fault. We agreed to it.”

Send your comments to michael.skapinker@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/skapinker

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