Seth, a 25-year-old freelance handyman and modern dancer, is waging a very small war on the consumer economy from his San Francisco apartment. He spends according to what he calls the “G lifestyle,” less than $1,000 a month, but he also can’t afford to give up his iPod—or pay off $5,000 of credit card debt. “It’s a huge struggle,” he says. “Do I become a Buddhist monk? I envision myself living in a multi-million dollar modern home on a sea cliff.” Seth doesn’t actually see this happening—fair enough, he’s not someone I’d trust with an investment portfolio. He is, however, a star witness in Anya Kamenetz’s polemic Generation Debt, about a conspiracy of forces preventing twenty- and thirtysomethings from breaking even with their parents. Seth’s also an exemplary reason why a book designed to inspire both outrage and sympathy works better on the first count than the second.
Generation Debt was born as a series of columns in this paper, most of them written by Kamenetz, about how 18- to 34-year-olds trying to hack it in the current economy are having an awfully hard time acquiring any more than Seth’s G lifestyle. It’s not their fault, Kamenetz writes—almost mandatory higher education now comes packaged with insurmountable loans, and the entry-level white-collar jobs that should be the payoff are increasingly hard to find. Too many college graduates are stuck with “crap jobs,” if any, she writes—no benefits, no security, and hardly anything approaching economic mobility. Couple this with a rough housing market and a compelling array of iPods and Xboxes, and you’ve got Kamenetz’s new friends, most of them at least several thousand dollars in student and credit card debt.
She quotes them—dozens of them, from varied backgrounds, and at length—with a mix of empathy, desperation, and unwitting condescension. There’s an echo of Al Gore’s woeful stories about his aging pals of 2000, none of whom could afford to pay for their dogs’ prescription medications. It’s not that Kamenetz’s arguments are off base—higher education is in fact more difficult to finance than it was before the ’90s, when student loans largely replaced federal student grants; freelance and temp jobs are indeed what most companies offer, given their newly discovered efficiency. It’s just that, as a recent Yale grad, Kamenetz is uniquely unqualified to expound on these developments. Neither grounded enough to merit her most sweeping pronouncements (“the new economic realities are distorting our life paths and relationships”) nor so unmoored as to serve as a witness (as she admits, she doesn’t have any debt), Kamenetz riddles her arguments with her own inexperience. Analysis is prefaced by confessions of her unworthiness—one chapter begins, “I certainly have no business making economic predictions”—while attempts to show solidarity with her subjects yield even more embarrassment. “This writer was once a minimum-wage retail slave,” Kamenetz writes, in all sincerity—for three months, at a bagel shop, reading Sartre’s Nausea, no less.
Inadvertently, Kamenetz plays into the worst stereotypes about her subjects—that immaturity and indulgence lead them to complain too often and to expect too much. It would take a slightly older and better- informed version of the author to get Generation Debt right. Coincidentally, or not, that book has just been written. Strapped, by Tamara Draut, cuts out much of Kamenetz’s slack and expands on an interesting twist. It’s not just that Generation Debters haven’t been given a safety net—reared during the Reagan years, they’re not prepared to agitate for it. Instead, their ’80s upbringing conditioned them to go it alone, working temp jobs, settling debts, and often getting educated at the same time. When that doesn’t pan out (Draut’s book, like Kamenetz’s, practically groans with stories of college dropouts and defaulted loans), they blame themselves and nobody else. Failure is perceived as personal, and the personal, for post-boomers, is never political, according to Draut. A director at progressive think tank Demos, she naturally disapproves, and the solution Strapped suggests is voting for a better deal. It’s not particularly helpful, though, if, as Draut claims, her target readers don’t have much time.
There’s another Generation Debt out there, written by Carmen Wong Ulrich (Warner Business, $12.95), for the people who actually live it. After polishing off
Kamenetz and Draut’s arguments in her first chapter, the author gets down to explaining how to balance a checkbook and manage debt, given that no one else is likely to offer any help. (“Accept their existence. . . . Then pay those suckers off,” she writes about student loans.) Political action—and authorship, it seems—are reserved for those of us with the luxury of contemplation.