Wieslawa Kozek, a sociologist at Warsaw University, realized how grim the job market had become when she remodeled her home this summer. The electrician offered to do the wiring for free -- if Kozek could find work for his son.

His son has an MBA.

This is Poland's lost generation: Thousands of high achievers in their twenties are graduating from college with computer skills, business savvy, perfect English -- and no job prospects.

Unemployment has jumped to 18 percent across the nation, and it is climbing fastest among those with college degrees, only one-third of whom will find steady work this year.

Poland, which recently became one of 10 candidates to join the European Union in 2004, was once at the head of the class of former communist countries economically. The shock therapy of the early '90s -- a painful reordering of the country's Marxist economic system -- stimulated production and reduced inflation. But now, when measured by such yardsticks as economic growth and purchasing power, Poland is lagging behind such countries as the Czech Republic, Slovakia and the Baltic states.

"The young people thought the world was open to them," said Kozek, whose students used to find work a few months after graduation. Then it became a year. Then two years.

One problem is a demographic bulge colliding with a downbeat economy. When Sylwia Bartczak enrolled at a Polish branch of Britain's Thames Valley University in 1995, Poland's economy was growing at 7 percent a year and multinational corporations were flocking to Warsaw.

Now 29, she has been looking for work for more than two years. In that time, growth has plummeted to 1 percent and unemployment is growing fastest in relatively rich Warsaw, where most companies are based, according to Lech Antkowiak, director of the regional employment office.

Economists say many of the problems can be blamed on the stumbling world economy, but plenty of them are homegrown. Business owners complain that the government makes it difficult and expensive to hire new employees. Entrepreneurs grouse about the red tape preventing them from starting new businesses.

The center-right coalition that took power in 1997 found its reform efforts frustrated by a crisis in Russia's economy and a slowdown in Germany, Poland's two biggest customers. Poland, with its heavy reliance on exports and foreign investment, was hit hard just as its biggest generation in decades was coming of age.

"It's destroying a great part of a generation," Lech Wojciechowski, 26, said the night before his wedding last month, as he nursed hot tea at a KFC franchise and cursed his future.

He graduated first in his class from a master's degree program in Eastern European studies at Warsaw University, but unlike his peers, he found work in his field. He writes about Moldova and Romania at the Polish Academy of Sciences.

The job, which he calls "a shower for my soul," pays $12 a day.

To make ends meet, he holds a second full-time position, arranging conferences at an advertising agency, "some boring job not connected to higher dreams," as he put it.

"The potential of young Polish people is wasted," he complained. "A lot are emigrating. I don't know anyone who isn't disgusted by what is happening. The only people who can realize their goals are those with connections. That is the legacy of communism, and it gets worse in crisis."

Unemployment will get worse before it gets better. More than a million new workers are expected to hit the job market in the next five years, and the baby boom is not expected to level off before 2006.

Danuta Mirska, who's fluent in three languages and has been unemployed since graduating in 2001, dropped by the placement office at Warsaw University one recent Monday, passing a sign that read "Perfect English is your key to success in the job market."

She holds the key, but she can't find the door.

"There aren't many positions that would be appealing to young grads at this time," said Marta Piasecka, who runs the university's placement center.

She encourages graduates to take unpaid internships and volunteer jobs with nonprofit groups. That day she had counseled a law school graduate who'd been given two days to decide whether he would accept a job as an assistant to a rent collector in an apartment building. "For some people," she said, "this causes psychological problems."

Mirska, 27, can continue her job search another three or four months before her savings are exhausted.

"I thought when I graduated I would have no problems finding work," said Mirska, who went to Nicholas Copernicus University in Torun. "Now it's obviously different. My sister's friend sent out 100 re{acute}sume{acute}s. She only got one response, and that was negative."

If she doesn't find a job, she will move to Germany, where she waited tables last year.

"That's the biggest problem in Poland," said Jozef Mioduszewski, a member of parliament from the Polish Peasant Party.

A survey commissioned in April by the Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper found that more than one in four Poles aged 19 to 26 neither worked nor went to school.

That includes Bartczak, who spends her time paging through want ads and fighting the sense that she is unemployable despite her training.

She found one job as a vacation guide, traveling 40 hours by bus to Croatia, then turning around after an hour's rest. That paid $25. She lasted two months.

"Without my parents," she said, "I would have to live under a bridge."