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.