Debt: Why Now Is a Terrible Time to Be Young
Riverhead Books, 304 pages, $24.95
Why America’s 20- and 30-Somethings Can’t Get Ahead
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
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