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

By Anya Kamenetz
Riverhead Books, 304 pp., $24.95

Strapped: Why America's 20- and 30-Somethings Can't Get Ahead
By Tamara Draut
Doubleday, 288 pp., $22.95

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Remember Generation X? Gen Y? The Boomerang Generation? The names and birth years change, but the pop-culture caricatures ... not so much. Words such as "entitled" and "slacker" are bandied about in condescending assessments of these post-, post-war 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 perma-temps. Two new books with different styles and equally grim conclusions outline the economic plight of young Americans. It's 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, arose from a series of Village Voice articles about young people in the new economy. Drawing on interviews with dozens of twenty- and early thirtysomethings of both working-class and professional backgrounds, the book veers toward a politics of melodrama -- she flirts with the idea that young people are an "oppressed class" -- but also toward surprisingly nuanced prescriptions. Meanwhile, 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 most. The style is straight, and a bit dry, but the analysis is on point.

 

What unites the books is a disconcerting narrative of declining economic security for two generations. The assumption that children of many boomers and older Xers will do better, 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 the fiscal consequences is a cherished part of the American Dream, 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 Xers and Yers. Neither author seemed to have much trouble finding college dropouts too poor to afford tuition and too rich for the necessary financial aid. Many of these otherwise ambitious twentysomethings defaulted on their loans, and are living thousands of dollars in debt. Several concede that -- conventional wisdom notwithstanding -- 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 such low-paying professions as library science and social work require a master's degree. And then there's the rising costs ... of health care, housing and college tuition itself, which even at public schools 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 independent orange-badge contractors at Microsoft.

 

In both of these titles, it's not hard to sniff out a bit of alarmism. 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 Dubya in denim.

 

But 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 into political clout.

 

No doubt the youth are too busy bailing themselves out of debt to staff phone banks, knock on doors or lobby for their economic future. As Kamenetz notes, campus activism has been effective with living-wage and anti-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 time frame, 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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