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Book Review: Generation Debt by Anya Kamenetz

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Things are tough all over, but Anya Kamenetz, author of Generation Debt, thinks they may be toughest for young people. So much so that Generation Debt carries the ominous subtitle Why Now Is A Terrible Time To Be Young.

In writing this book, Kamenetz understands that others may perceive her (or her generation) as children who whine “not fair” when things don’t go their way. While she occasionally slips into this voice (“those of us between eighteen and thirty-five have somehow been cheated out of our inheritance,” “it’s not too dramatic to say that the nation is abandoning its children”), Kamenetz overcomes this perception by systematically detailing just how tough things are, and how her generation really could be worse off than that of its parents.

Kamenetz discusses many problems facing young people, including the trend toward jobs without pensions or health care coverage, the use of temps and freelancers over full-time employees, rising government deficits and the potential for future cuts in Medicare and Social Security. Many of these issues cut across all age groups, however. Kamenetz is most convincing, and most compelling, when she outlines the problems unique to young people. One of their biggest problems is paying for college.

While conventional wisdom says that a college degree is almost a requirement for substantial career prospects, skyrocketing tuitions are pricing potential students out of the market. Financial supports that have helped students in the past are less often available – grant money has given way to student loans, subsidized student loans (interest is paid by the government until after graduation) are more often giving way to unsubsidized loans (interest charges begin immediately).

As a result, more students work their way through college, with sizable loans to pay off afterward. Others start college but can’t afford to finish – and the loans they took out still need to be paid. (According to Kamenetz, one in three twenty-somethings is a college dropout, compared to one in five in the late 1960s.) Either way, many come out of their college experience to an unstable job market with a mountain of debt.

Kamenetz interviewed dozens of young people from a variety of backgrounds for Generation Debt, and she sprinkles these personal experiences throughout the book to accentuate her points. It’s an effective tool, with interviewees running the gamut from head-in-the-clouds, how-could-you-be-so-stupid money-wasters to highly responsible people who’ve been thwarted in their attempts to get ahead, whether due to lack of job opportunities, inescapable debt, or inability to pay for an education.

With any book that painstakingly details a problem, a reader inevitably gets weary and says, “O.K., so what do we do about it?” One solution — at least a partial solution — Kamenetz offers young people is to live within their means. Resist easy credit and societal pressures toward material comforts.

A second solution is to fight the power – whether that means on a political level, within a university setting, or on the job. Kamenetz makes it clear she is a liberal, and, while she cites some real examples of young people fighting for their financial rights, I can’t help but question whether her calls for organizing and building political muscle are liberal fantasies. Will students ever again muster the clout they had during the Vietnam War? And if they could, are high college costs or lack of health insurance enough to spur them into action? Nevertheless, I suppose it can’t hurt to try.

Generation Debt is an impressive book, especially when you consider Anya Kamenetz wrote it at 24 years of age. It is well-researched, well-reasoned, and interesting enough that I didn’t feel like putting the book down despite the battering ram of depressing news it offers. While one book won’t change the underlying causes that threaten young people’s prosperity, Generation Debt may help older generations understand the young, and help the young realize they’re not alone.

For more information on Generation Debt and author Anya Kamenetz, visit http://www.anyakamenetz.com or Kamenetz’s blog.

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About Justin McHenry

  • Nice review! My impression is that credit card debt is one of the biggest bugaboos–instant gratification is hard to resist when the credit card companies are literally throwing themselves at already strapped students.

  • Bliffle

    I think this ‘generational warfare’ propaganda is an attempt to divert attention from the real malefactors in our society: opportunistic monopoly businessmen and the crooked politicians who serve them. On a lesser scale are wooly-headed leftists (and their rightist cousins) who are anxious to give other peoples money away to unworthy causes and greedy folk of every persuasion.

    To attempt to blame this on a group of people merely because of their age is bigotry and no different from racism.

    So it’s difficult and expensive to get an education? What’s new? When was it easy? Who promised them a rosegarden? There were guys who started work at 11, caddying, delivering papers, setting pins, running little businesses like lawn-rolling and shoveling snow and painting houses, etc., and girls were babysitting, clerking, waitressing, etc. Mostly they did without. Without new clothes except a new shirt each school year. Many had saved the price of a new chevvy by the time they started college. What’s a new chevvy worth today? How many 18 year olds have earned that money? How many can struggle thru a 4 year college on it?

    This is the Land Of Opportunity.

    Some of those guys were screwed 20-30 years later by a vicious ex-spouse or a greedy company eager to cash in the pension plan, steal their stock vestings, or fire them to benefit their own position in a merger or buyout. So they started startup companies. Some got cheated out of the fruits of a startup by business pirates or a politician-buying monopoly. So they became consultants. Some lost their homes at the age of 70 to a tornado or a flood or a hurricane and found themselves with inadequate house insurance payoffs. So they started an eBay business or got menial jobs at HD or WalMart. Started working their way up – again. Sonny re-started at 70 delivering lumber off a lumber truck, hoisting 4×6 beams on and off. Told me, laughing, that he could do two things no young guy could do: show up on time and do it every day.

    Life is a struggle. When an organism ceases to struggle it is dead. The payoff? Not riches, not property, not fame or adoration. All you get is the right, and the courage, to laugh at vicissitude. Even death holds no threat, no fear. That’s why tough old farts don’t lay on their deathbeds shaking a fist at god and whining “why me?” After the unpleasant parents, the betraying bosses, crooked politicians, unfaithful spouses, indifferent children, ruinous misfortune, what threat does death hold? Where is deaths sting? Where the graves victory? It’s a joke. That’s the big payoff.

  • Ruggy

    These Congressmen think they’ve got it made with their lucrative pensions, COLA and generous benefits.

    Just wait until they try to actually spend that pension after we experience a decade of hyperinflation resulting from their irresponsible decisions.

    Today’s Congressmen will become tomorrow’s beggars in the bread lines of generational retribution.

    We’ll see to that!