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The Unaffordable Dream
By John Dicker

 

Generation Debt: Why Now Is a Terrible Time to Be Young

By Anya Kamenetz

Riverhead Books, 304 pages, $24.95

 

Strapped: Why America’s 20- and 30-Somethings Can’t Get Ahead

By Tamara Draut

Doubleday, 288 pages, $22.95

Remember Generation X? Or Gen Y? Or the “Boomerang” Generation? The names and birth years change, but the pop-culture caricatures . . . not so much. Words like “entitled” or “slacker” are bandied about in condescending assessments of these post-postwar generations; harangues typically penned by well-fed boomers who know little of student-loan debt, chronic lack of health insurance, or a job market fueled by permatemps. Two new books with different styles and equally grim conclusions outline the economic plight of young Americans. A world described by 24-year-old author Anya Kamenetz as a state “of permanent impermanence.”

Both titles cast a wide net in their analysis—from the rise of college-born credit-card debt and the enormity of student loans to the problem of impossibly priced health insurance and real estate. Generation Debt by Anya Kamenetz was born from of a series of Village Voice articles about young people in the new economy. Drawing on interviews with dozens of 20- and early 30-somethings of both working-class and professional backgrounds, the book can veer toward a politics of melodrama—she flirts with the idea that young people are an “oppressed class”—to surprisingly nuanced prescriptions. Think-tank wonk Tamara Draut’s Strapped is a more nuanced polemic that also assesses how zoning policies and the housing bubble hurt young families the hardest. The style is straight, and a tad bit dry, but the analysis is on point.

What unites both books is a disconcerting narrative of declining economic security for two generations. The assumption that children of many boomers and older X-ers will do better than (or even as well as) their parents is no longer a given. Opportunity and freedom may still be bountiful and young Americans are still encouraged to dream big; what’s missing is the security. The pensions, the generous student aid, the livable starting salary. Following one’s career fancies without thinking too hard about their fiscal consequences is a cherished part of the American Dream culture, not something that gets a lot of critical scrutiny.

Until now. Both Kamenetz and Draut do a wonderful job illustrating their largely historic and economic arguments with the life experiences of a wide swath of X- and Y-ers. Neither author seemed to have much trouble finding college dropouts too poor to afford tuition and too rich for the necessary financial aid. In many cases these otherwise ambitious 20-somethings defaulted on their loans, and are living thousands in debt. Several concede that, conventional wisdom to the contrary, going to college was the worst decision of their lives.

The premium on a college degree is such that people tell both authors that a bachelor’s degree is the new high-school diploma, and that grad school is the new college. Consider that even low-paying professions like library science and social work require a master’s degree. And then there’s the rising costs—of health care, housing, and college tuition, which even at public schools has quadrupled in the 1990s. And don’t get either of these women started on the rise of the temp class that encompasses everything from day labor at Manpower to orange-badge independent contractors at Microsoft.

It’s not hard to sniff out a bit of alarmism in both of these titles. Because she draws from a rather shallow well of personal experience, Kamenetz is a lot easier to pick on here. It’s not that she asks readers to feel sorry for her, it’s just that her personal experience of being out of Yale for all of two years is neither compelling nor relevant to her other arguments. Does she really think putting in three months at a bagel joint lends her some sort of proletarian street cred? About as much as Dubya in denim.

However pleasurable it is to snipe at the messengers, Strapped and Generation Debt are dead-on in urging young people to understand their economic experience as political. The bipartisan passage of the bankruptcy bill, the wettest imaginable kiss to the credit-card lobby, offers a case in point. Kamenetz encourages a youth movement, and Draut offers a vague “vote our way out of debt” prescription. Unfortunately, recent history is not too encouraging so far as generational politics goes. Whether it’s the Diddy-endorsed ultimatum or MTV News’ gentle predecessor, the generation block has failed to rock the vote in any way that translates to political clout.

No doubt the youth are too busy bailing themselves out of debt to phone bank, knock on doors or lobby for their economic future. As Kamenetz notes, campus activism has been effective with living-wage and sweatshop campaigns, so why the reluctance to organize around generational self- interest? (Hey, Thomas Frank: What’s the matter with campus?) All this may change, of course, but probably not within the timeframe—or even in the political direction—that either writer might hope to see. Perhaps though, the sneering boomers might direct their wagging fingers elsewhere.

 


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