LOS ANGELES — Alicia Thomas, 20, had it all planned out: career at a nonprofit, married by 24, mortgage by 26.
Then financial markets went on a wild roller coaster ride, portending that high unemployment and the stalled economy won't be rebounding any time soon.
"I'll be taking smaller steps," said Thomas, who is majoring in political science at the University of California at San Diego.
Call it Generation Vexed — young Americans who are downsizing expectations in the face of an uncertain future. Career plans are being altered, marriages put off and dreams shelved.
Less than 50 percent of Americans believe that the current generation will have a better life than the last, according to a spring Gallup poll. It was the most pessimistic showing for that barometer in nearly three decades.
Another poll, of Americans ages 18 to 29, found that three-quarters of them expect to delay a major life change or purchase because of economic factors. The survey was by the nonprofit Generation Opportunity, headed by Paul Conway.
"There's a generation here being formed under the crucible of unemployment, debt and lack of economic chances," said Conway, chief of staff at the Labor Department during the George W. Bush administration. "They're just seeking an opportunity to get in the game."
Since mid 2008, unemployment in the 16-to-24 age group has been 13 percent and higher, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Last month, it stood at 17.4 percent.
The job situation could haunt young people for years, said Andrew Sum, director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University.
More than half of earnings growth over a lifetime happens in the first decade of a career, meaning that early unemployment can depress future wages for life, he said.