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Interview: Anya Kamenetz, Author of Generation Debt

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Last week I reviewed Generation Debt by Anya Kamenetz, a 25-year-old-writer for the Village Voice. In the book, Kamenetz describes the sorry financial shape of today’s young people and questions whether her generation will be worse off than that of its parents.

After reading and reviewing the book, I contacted Kamenetz for an interview via e-mail. I lightly challenged Kamenetz on some of the book’s conclusions, giving her the opportunity to respond to obvious criticisms some readers might have. As you’ll see, Kamenetz seemed to tire of my questions:

In your mind, what is the biggest problem unique to young people in getting their financial lives in order?

The fact that they are getting into heavy debt (from both student loans and credit cards) before they have started to earn any money. By the time my interview subjects started paying attention to the basics of finance, in their early 20s, they often had 5 figures of student loans (the national average is over $20,000) and 4 figures of credit card debt.

Looking at college costs, doesn’t something have to give? How long can tuitions increase before college is again only for the very rich, and enrollment actually declines as a result?

Enrollment is already under heavy negative pressure, particularly for middle and lower income students, due to rising costs. In 2003, a Senate advisory committee estimated that 2 million college-qualified high school grads will opt out of college for financial reasons this decade. Also, even more students are “downgrading” from a 4-year to 2-year college. Nevertheless, I predict that tuition will continue to increase faster than inflation – like health care, it is resistant to cost controls. The question is whether we will implement policies to level the playing field.

You lay blame for the current situation of young people at the feet of various groups – parents, government, the young people themselves. But who in your mind is most to blame for the potential of this generation to be worse off than their parents?

I’m not that interested in pointing fingers. This is a complicated situation and in the end it comes down to the turning wheel of history. Developments like outsourcing, for example, are really no one’s fault; nor is the huge demographic shift caused by the Boomers’ retirement. Still, I believe that only national leadership can point the way toward a better future.

Your book is sub-titled “Why Now Is A Terrible Time To Be Young” and you talk about a lot of problems from the perspective of young people. But aren’t a lot of these problems bigger than just young people? For example, uncertain jobs with dwindling benefits are hurting everyone in an age of downsizing and forced early retirement. Could the subtitle actually be “Why Now Is A Terrible Time” and leave it at that?

No. The whole point of my book is to give the perspective of young people like myself. Our specific goals and concerns have been ignored and treated superficially for too long. I am advocating that we band together as a constituency and to do that I need to show how all these developments affect young people as a group.

There are obviously political overtones to your book, you call yourself a liberal or progressive a number of times. Do you believe a change in political leadership would make a difference in young people’s lives? Judging by the voting patterns of young people, many of them don’t seem to think it makes a difference.

Did you know that in the 2004 election, the youth vote spiked 11 points, more than any other age group? And that voters under 25 were the only age group to vote for Kerry, by 10 points? And that the Millennials, born roughly in the 1980s, actually rival the Boomers in size?

A change in political leadership could represent a recommitment to economic opportunity through education, an increased tax burden on the obscenely wealthy .01% who have reaped the lion’s share of the gains from our last expansion, a sunshine reform of credit laws, and a system of portable and flexible health care and retirement benefits for workers and retirees alike.

I am 36, a bit more than 10 years older than you. I graduated from a state college about 6 months before Bill Clinton became president with the all-purpose communications major, in a lousy economy, and worked crappy jobs for a few years before landing my first “real” job. Today I’m married with two kids and make a reasonably good living. I don’t consider myself particularly remarkable in that way, yet I fit in on the (upper) end of the generation you are talking about. For people your age and below, isn’t there a possibility that you’re stuck at the economy’s low point and just haven’t hit your big earning years yet? Didn’t you meet a good number of people who didn’t have large debt and had good jobs that were doing OK? In other words, is there a possibility that the phenomenon you’re documenting is overblown?

The economic changes I describe are real and they go beyond your or my anecdotal accounts of our lives.

In addition to advocating living within their means, you advocate young people banding together to have a stronger voice, whether politically or within institutions such as colleges or the workplace. How realistic do you think this is? You mention the strength of the AARP and say there is nothing comparable within the younger generation. My initial thought was that once you’re not so young anymore, you’d care less about the plight of the younger worker and leave it to the new batch of young people, making ongoing organizing difficult – once you qualify for the AARP, on the other hand, you’re not going to be moving out of that group until you’re dead, so there’s more stability there.

Throughout Europe, Canada, and Latin America, the student movements and youth movements are strong and recognized parts of the political landscape — capable of staging national strikes and presenting legislative plans in parliament alike.

To have written the book you did at age 24 is extremely impressive, whether readers agree with your conclusions or not. Describe what it was like to become a published author — how hard was the process and how does the finished product make you feel?

It was a job like any other — except that beginning six months after you complete the project you must spend a year talking about it to anyone who will listen.

You mention entrepreneurship only briefly in your book. Companies are cutting their workforces and slashing benefits — do you think it would be wise for young people to spend more time looking at starting their own businesses versus looking for financial stability in companies that have become notoriously unstable? Are people just going to have to get used to being free agents, being “on their own”?

Your opinion is clear from the question. My opinion is clear from the book. I want to see some labor market reforms.

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