Parents and employers are united in fear: Britain's grown-up children are highly educated, thousands of pounds in debt and have no intention whatsoever of getting a proper job.
Careers analysts have identified a sea change in attitude among new graduates which means that only one in three applies for a traditional career in their final year of study. Instead, they sign up for years of temporary work or travel, postponing professional advancement until their mid-20s. Many remain living at home.
Last week research from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) reveals a third of graduates who found work on leaving university were doing "non-graduate" jobs, including shelf-stacking and working in call centres.
Professor Kate Purcell, a leading authority in graduate careers at the University of the West of England, points to a revolution in middle-class attitudes. "The transition from lecture hall to the world of work is no longer seen as a rite of passage."
Carl Gilleard, chief executive of the Association of Graduate Recruiters, said employers accept they may not attract top graduates until they are in their mid-20s. As many as two-thirds of final-year university students have abandoned the "milk round", or the old-fashioned recruitment process.
The key change was the introduction of tuition fees, according to Anne-Marie Martin, director of the Careers Group, the University of London. She said the majority of students already have part-time work to fund their studies, and continue this way of life.
With students spending greater sums to fund their degrees, they are also more determined to land a dream job, says the Institute for Employment Studies. They are prepared to "try out" a series of postings before they settle into something suitable, according to the independent think tank.
While some graduates spend time broadening their experience, the Trades Union Congress believes some are trapped in a "cycle of temping" because student debts force them into immediate employment. "Unless there is an obvious profession at the end of their degree - like law, medicine, teaching or accountancy - it is difficult for people to work out what to do," said policy officer Raj Jethwa.
Recruitment agencies like Reed and Adecco have capitalised on this trend and set up offices specialising in providing graduates with immediate earning opportunities. Dan Ferrandino, director of Reed Graduates, said: "There seems to be a greater pressure on graduates to find work, and temporary work can be a quick way to start paying for independence."
Studies show 90 per cent of university leavers do eventually find high-level work, and receive premium pay, but the average salary for a new graduate is £17,000 - much less than the national average of £22,248.
Name: Sadie Morris
Degree in classics and classical archaeology from the University of Birmingham
Currently doing office work in Cambridge after working in a call centre and failing to get on a teacher training course
Would like to be a teacher
"It's a vicious circle. I don't have enough classroom experience to get on a teacher training course but I can't afford to have time off work. The other problem was that my degree isn't suitable. I have a good job but I can't see myself doing it for a lot longer. It's quite limiting. I don't know what I could do if I didn't go into teaching. I'm finding it difficult to think of something I want to do."
Name: Henry Tyce
Degree in history from the University of Liverpool
Currently works as the duty manager at a climbing wall centre in Leeds. Has spent two years climbing and teaching English while living in Spain.
Does not know yet
"I've thought about what I want to do in the long term but I haven't come to any conclusion. Working here is a good opportunity to train and it's a pleasant working environment. If I choose a career I'm sure it will be a problem. There will be a lot of other people with experience - the people I will be up against for jobs will have more work experience. They will have been doing it for longer than I have."
Source: By Nicholas Pyke and Steve Bloomfield
09 January 2005 Independent