Debt to America

Anya Kamenetz, a 25-year-old writer for the Village Voice and author of Generation Debt: Why Now is a Terrible Time to be Young, is at the age when, not so long ago, many young adults were already married, buying their first homes, and settling into family life. But Kamenetz knows that those milestones are more difficult for her and her peers to achieve, and that it will take them longer to reach the next level of official adulthood. Unlike many older observers, however, she does not blame this on a slacker generation of adults kids who prefer to leech off their parents and avoid long-term commitments to relationships or real estate. Instead, writing in short vignettes that relate the frustrations of young adults struggling to become financially stable, Kamenetz identifies economic and political structural changes as the source of the problem.

Ultimately, however, Kamenetz’s generational cynicism prevents her from imagining ways to turn this situation around, and she restricts most of her solutions to embracing her peers and teaching them how to cope with their lot in life.

The members of what Kamenetz calls “generation debt” aren’t putting off settling down just to annoy their grandchild-craving mothers. Once they leave their parents’ houses, these young adults start falling into a hole that will take them the next decade or more to crawl out of. Start with college: Previous generations enjoyed a government support structure that gave many working and middle-class students the means to attend college, through such programs as the GI Bill and the Higher Education Act, which created the Pell Grant. Today, as tuition costs have risen exponentially, government support has withered away. Federal grants, which once covered most of the costs of college, now barely make a dent.

Over the past 30 years, Pell Grants have gone from paying three-quarters of college costs to covering about one-third of the costs. State governments, which used to heavily subsidize in-state tuition, have significantly cut back funding, making state schools much less affordable. In the late 1970s, average tuition for a four-year state college was less than $2,000 in 2003 dollars; today, it is about 30 times higher. As a result, twenty-somethings from middle- or lower-income families take on incapacitating levels of student loans; the average college student graduates with $20,000 in debt.

When college graduates do enter the job market, saddled with a hefty loan payments, they earn less than their parents–or even their older cousins–did at the same age. Young male college graduates today earn about $3,000 less than they did a generation ago. For the majority of people who do not have a four-year degree, the situation has gotten even worse. The median annual salary for a worker between the ages of 25 and 34 without a college degree is $10,000 less than it was 30 years ago.

For these struggling workers, buying a house is often the final nail. As housing prices rise by double digits annually, twenty-somethings who do purchase a home shoulder housing debt that is more than 50 percent higher than it was for their parents at the same age. Throw in the high cost of raising children, pensions daily becoming a thing of the past, and debates about the future of Social Security, and retirement–already a long way off–seems like just a pipe dream. Even if, as these young adults age, they find ways to increase their earnings enough to support themselves, their future looks bleak.

Nor is it clear what the broader consequences of this shift will be. It took a generation for China’s one-child policy to produce an enormous gender imbalance and accompanying social problems for that country. Delayed adulthood could have demographic and sociological effects in the United States that are not clear for many years.

Kamenetz spends most of her book laying out this grim picture before turning to consider possible solutions. She proposes everything from student loan reform to simple living to entrepreneurship. Perhaps her most radical suggestion is to promote “un-schooling” plans, in which each person develops his or her own life curriculum. The problem with all of this is that Kamenetz appears to have taken on another characteristic of her generation: cynicism. She is so convinced that the structural changes that led to the current situation are permanent and unyielding and beyond her control that she focuses her suggestions more on coping than on organizing or agitating for change.

That’s too bad, because in doing so, Kamenetz ignores her own conclusion that large-scale economic and political changes–and not individual failure or a slacker generation–are the source of young people’s problems. Individually-tailored coping mechanisms are not only less likely to make a difference on a large scale; they alter the terms of the debate to allow just the kind of blaming-the-victim that Kamenetz tried to rebut. Kamenetz clearly intends to be empowering when she writes that “It falls to each of us to do a realistic assessment of our abilities, interests and goals.” But the implication is that those who can’t, or don’t, perform a “realistic” assessment are at fault if they fail.

On some level, Kamenetz understands this, and she tosses in a call near the end for a “strong national generational movement” to support a larger government role in the economy. But once she has introduced this idea, she laments that such a discussion is not on the current political agenda and then simply moves on. This kind of hopeless acceptance may reflect a cynicism about what politics and government can achieve.

As a child of the post-Reagan era, Kamenetz may have read history books about public struggles for fairness and equality, but she has rarely witnessed them. As a result, while she may have been the right author to recognize and highlight the problems her generation faces, Kamenetz may not have the broad outlook and understanding of how to achieve collective outcomes that is needed to present solutions that will work.

What young adults need most is the same thing most Americans want: an economy that creates high-paying jobs and spreads prosperity equitably instead of letting CEOs take the lion’s share for themselves. And they need policies to make college more affordable, whether through large increases in Pell Grants or an expanded system of national service. Many other policy changes, such as paid maternity leave and child care, as well as retirement savings accounts that are not tied to employers, would help old and young alike.

The kinds of political changes necessary to give twenty-somethings a fair shot are not likely to be on the agenda tomorrow–not even if the Democrats somehow retake control of the government. But they were once basic components of the safety net that created America’s middle class. And they could be again, through a sustained collective effort that makes strong demands of our elected officials. That even a smart, capable, open-minded person like Kamenetz, who is able to identify the structural problems her generation faces, feels she must hedge her endorsement of greater collective social justice, indicates just how hard this necessary effort will be.

Issues that impact young adults seldom take center stage in Washington for the simple reason that politicians–Democrats and Republicans–follow money and votes, and young people neither have much money nor vote in great numbers. But other previously powerless groups–from low-wage workers in the early 20th century to African Americans in the 1950s and 1960s–have organized to successfully demand political change. Frederick Douglass once said that “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” If young people want the opportunities their parents and grandparents had, they’re going to have to fight for them.

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