I, Breadwinner?

Your dad had a job, a wife, a house. You've got loans and fear of commitment. Hello, manhood.

Owe no man any thing. Romans 13:8

Illustration: Anthony Freda


Sex & Money
This week, the Voice looks at the ways modern debt affects the traditional life choices of women and men.

  • Superwoman 2.0
    Your biological clock. Your student loans. Your girly paycheck. Hey, you're having it all.

  • Sorry, Kids
    Mom and dad have glimpsed your future, and it's not exactly bright
  • Don't worry about the loans. I'm doing good, Dad, and it's gonna stay that way. Bud Fox [Charlie Sheen] in Oliver Stone's Wall Street.

    For me, it was all about easy money.

    When I started college, I needed and wanted funds—for an apartment, a car, a girlfriend, alcohol, and of course, tuition. Conveniently, the dorms and lecture halls were strewn with credit card applications, which are as much a part of the university experience as Wednesday-morning hangovers. The plastic loan sharks beckoned with low monthly payments and generous credit lines. It was an offer few of us could refuse.

    Naturally, credit cards, with their usurious interest rates, were just the start. Student loans, a fact of life for nearly every red-blooded (as opposed to blue-blooded) American, were a much bigger deal. And the bonus was you could begin paying them back after graduation or, at any rate, in the distant future. It wasn't my problem, I reasoned. It was the problem of some future version of myself. Screw him.

    Thus was a Matterhorn of debt created. But as I morphed from a twentysomething into a thirty-nothing, the realization began to dawn: Will the supersized student loans and maxed-out credit cards stay with me until the bitter end? Will I spend the rest of my life barely making rent, forever beholden to myriad creditors? Will I be able to purchase a home? Will I be solvent enough to provide, God help me, for a family? Will, in other words, there be consequences to an early life of profligate borrowing?

    Well, yeah. "As a group, young adults underestimate how long it will take to repay the debt," said Jill Norvilitis, an associate professor of psychology at Buffalo State University, who has studied collegiate debt.

    For many young men beginning their stroll through adulthood, debilitating indebtedness spawns a problem that goes beyond the figures on a bank statement. It's the growing sense that you won't be able to live the kind of life you hoped, the kind of life you grew up expecting. "It's incredibly depressing," said Paula Langguth Ryan, an author and lecturer on bankruptcy. "It's emasculating. They wonder, 'How did my parents do this? I can't possibly do this. How can I tell my father that I'm so far over my head I can't buy any presents this Christmas?'

    "You get onto that roller coaster of paying off the debt, but it still keeps going up," Ryan added. "You're just spinning your wheels and huge frustration mounts. 'How can I tell the person I am dating that I am this far in debt?' "

    Eric Heidt, 33, a Manhattan architect, just refinanced his student loans. Now the payments are manageable, but they're also eternal. "It's going to take me a lifetime to take care of it."

    Heidt is living out an economic reality that his father might scarcely recognize. "Buying a house is pretty much out of reach," he said. "My parents had a bunch of kids, they bought houses, and here I am living in a 12-by-16 room with a stranger and I'm not saving any money. There's something wrong."

    The lives of young adults, male and female, have changed over the past few decades. For one, fewer of us are getting married in our twenties and even thirties. Figures from the U.S. Census Bureau's

    Current Population Survey show that, among 30- to 34-year-olds, the marriage rate in 2003 was four times lower than it was in 1970. Among 20- to 24-year-olds, 75 percent of women had never been married—compared to 36 percent in 1970—and 86 percent of men had never been married—compared to 55 percent in 1970. It's just not an essential part of how young men see their post-graduation life these days.

    According to a 2002 Rutgers University study, young men are reluctant to marry for several reasons—they think it will require too many changes and compromises; they aren't confronted with social pressures to make the leap; they can just as easily live with a woman as marry her; and, to put it quite simply, they would rather enjoy the single life for as long as humanly possible. "Some of these men have spent a good part of their early adult years living with parents, roommates, or alone," the study's authors wrote. "They have become accustomed to their own space and routines. They enjoy the freedom of not having to be responsible to anyone else."

    But the study also cites several financial reasons for putting off the marriage decision. Young men fear divorce and the financial risks it would bring, including child support. And most would like to purchase a house before taking the vows.

    It's clear that young people aren't buying homes at the same rate as previous generations. Even though interest rates have plummeted to historic lows in recent years, causing a surge in home ownership across the country, the number of home buyers under 45 has remained steady nationwide since 1980. In New York City, only the lucky few can afford to purchase property. The white picket fence carries an entirely too costly price tag. We are a far more transitory generation, picking up and moving from apartment to apartment, job to job, relationship to relationship, city to city—all while being followed by the black cloud of the financial choices of our late teens and early twenties.

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