Generation in Debt?

Via bookslut, an interview at AlterNet with Tamara Draut, author of Strapped, a book about how hard young people have it today. The basic thesis of the book and the interview is that twenty- and thirty-somethings these days are in a uniquely bad position, because of the rising cost of college and relatively stagnant wages.

My reaction to this is sort of equal parts "There but for the grace of God go I" and "You people are doing it all wrong." The picture Draut paints does, indeed, sound pretty bleak, but it doesn't really fit my experience very well. This is really a fundamental problem with trying to describe a "generation" consisting of millions of individuals as a coherent thing.

(Scattered and rambling thoughts below the fold.)

My main problem with these stories is that while I'm pretty clearly in the group she's describing (I'm 34 for a couple more weeks), the picture doesn't really fit. I never had demeaning temp jobs, I'm not being crushed under a mountain of student loan debt, I've got a full-time job in a field that I chose, I've got a nice house in a nice neighborhood, etc. Much of this is a matter of luck-- Kate and I both had scholarships in college that saved us from massive student loans, and I was fortunate enough to get a tenure-track job in a relatively cheap area-- but the stories they tell in the interview (I haven't read the book, and I'm not likely to) don't really resonate for me. It's not describing my experience.

It's an even worse match with my friends from college, most of whom seem to be comfortably wealthy. I knew one guy who spent a couple of years temping after college, but the last I heard, he had gone off to law school. One good friend is an Interpid International Journalist, filing reports from Baghdad for the French wire services, but most of the group I've remained close with are making considerably more than I do. Even the one guy who didn't have an obvious career path has managed to find a job that suits his unique personal skills (selling restaurant franchises), and is making a good living.

Now, granted, I went to a particularly elite college, so this isn't exactly a representative sample. But then, it doesn't really fit the people I know from high school, either, and you can't accuse Whitney Point Central School of being an elite educational institution. I haven't stayed that close with that many of my high school classmates, but it's a small town, and I get a fair number of updates, most of which are your standard American dream stuff-- people getting jobs, getting married, buying houses, having kids. The people I was close with went off to college, and have done pretty well. It might be that they're not doing as well as they would've twenty years ago, but I'm not sure how you judge that. They certainly don't appear to be trapped in the sort of horror story that the AlterNet piece describes.

There are, of course, reporting bias problems here-- someone who's working an endless series of temp jobs and living in a bad neighborhood in New York isn't really going to send a lot of updates. But I think a lot of the problem is nicely explained in one paragraph from the introductory material of the AlterNet article:

Her words ring uncomfortably true. As a "young adult" (age 29, thank you very much) from the generation Draut is covering, I've watched more than a few college-grad friends struggle to pay off their towering school loans and credit card debt -- usually on "creative sector" annual salaries ranging from $25K to $40K (while attempting to thrive in notoriously overpriced cities such as New York, Boston and San Francisco).

This is the "you're doing it wrong" part. OF course you're going to have trouble making ends meet if you're working a "creative sector" job in an expensive city. That's part of the package.

The people I know from high school who are settling into a comfortable middle class existence are working unglamorous jobs in unglamorous places. They're teaching in public schools in Central New York (the middle part of the state, not Midtown Manhattan), or working in business in Syracuse, or Buffalo, or North Carolina, or Texas. They're not in the "creative sector," and they're not trying to make ends meet in New York or Boston, and as a result, they're not having that much trouble making ends meet.

This is my gripe about most articles and books that attempt to describe "generational" experiences-- they tend to be written about the experience of a very limited subset of people, usually people from the "creative sector," and are pretty irrelevant to the large numbers of people who have much more mundane lives. I went through a couple of rounds of this back in the 90's-- in the Grunge Era, I wasn't hanging out in coffee shops and bitching about the meaninglessness of life, and neither were my friends. I was in physics grad school, they were mostly on Wall Street or in medical school. None of us were particularly bored or disaffected. I didn't even like Nirvana.

During the Dot-Com Boom, I was still a grad student and then a post-doc, so I missed out on my chance to make and lose millions day-trading stocks, or work for a tech company with five billion dollars in capital and a pinball machine in the office, but no tangible products. And now, when I'm supposed to be struggling to make ends meet and unable to move my life forward, I find myself becoming painfully bourgeois. There's this whole narrative of "Generation X" experience that has just completely passed me by. And, I suspect, a large fraction of other people my age-- probably a majority of the "generation."

It's not just a Gen-X thing, either. As I think I've said before, my parents are on the leading edge of the Baby Boom, but haven't exactly led archetypal Baby Boomer lives-- their college experience was more beer-drinking Animal House antics than pot-smoking hippie protest stuff, and my father spent the late 1960's in Ethiopia teaching with the Peace Corps, and missed all the Woodstock/ Summer of Love stuff. They got married in 1970, and moved to a rural area in Central New York, and missed pretty much everything else the Baby Boom generation is supposed to have done since.

(My friend Paul, the Intrepid Journalist, has an even better anti-Baby-Boom story-- in the summer of 1968, his father was a doctor in the US Army, stationed in Utah. You don't get less "Summer of Love" than that.)

As I said, I haven't read Draut's book, so my gripes are mostly based on magazine pieces and the like. She does seem to provide some numbers to back up her contention that things are pretty bad for current college graduates (though some of them have a faint "How to Lie with Statistics" air), and it's hard to believe that $30,000/year college tuition isn't putting people in a hole. But at the same time, I think a lot of the anecdotal material that goes along with this is sort of overblown-- lots of young people are struggling, but there are plenty of others who are doing just fine with boring and practical jobs in boring and practical places.


More like this

A lot will depend on the situation they came from. I can definitely sympathize with the student loan debt. I left school with 50K in student loans (and that was after some pretty good scholarships), since my parents didn't pay anything for my education. I did a stint as a technician for a year (at $10/hour) and then went to grad school (stipend: 13K/year). And then I got pregnant, so credit cards (which I'd never had a balance on previously) became the way to buy groceries (and, mostly, diapers). Oh yeah, and did I mention that because a lot of my student loan debt was via private loans (that I took after I maxed out my federal loans), I had to pay the interest while in college, and they didn't return to deferment status when I went to grad school? $400/month is a big chunk when you're only bringing home a bit over $800 a month after taxes.

Anyhoo, we scraped by and will have the credit cards totally paid off at the end of the year, but I won't have my student loan debt totally paid off for another 6 years--at age 36. My own daughter will start college (presumably) when I'm 40.

And did I mention how many of my friends had parents that bought them cars while I was desperately trying to hold on to my junker, or parents that gave them the 20% downpayments on their first house? Not I. And with the exception of college, I've always lived in "cheap" places. But overall, I agree with your comment that

...most articles and books that attempt to describe "generational" experiences-- they tend to be written about the experience of a very limited subset of people, usually people from the "creative sector," and are pretty irrelevant to the large numbers of people who have much more mundane lives.

While I think I'm about as "mundane" as it gets, I agree that any of these "Gen yada yada has this experience" statements are crap. In fact, I'm working on another post on a separate-but-related topic and am totally going to steal that. (Credited, of course. :) )

Chad, I don't think you, or I, for that matter, are typical representatives of our generation. Most people probably think that faculty job is a "dream" and don't appreciate how much work it really is. When you send an email to a colleague at 10PM, or on a Saturday and get a response 30 min later, you pretty much know they are "working" this late.

On the other hand, I am not sure how many people are able to "choose" what they do, as opposed to being forced into the job that provides the most money to pay for their debts, or their cars, whatever. The truth is, 99% of people, not just our generation, everyone - hate their jobs, and would quit if they won a lottery or something. We are among 1% who choose to take a massive paycut (as opposed to what we could earn had we pursued other, alternative directions, such as law, finance or medicine with the same single-minded ambition we approach science) to do what we happen to enjoy doing.

But let's not kid ourselves - a lot of 20-something and 30-somethings are stuck in jobs they don't particularly care for, with little or no chance to buy a house or start a family, because they are effectively "pushed out" by old-timers. This is partially due to housing "bubble" market fueled by a variety of high priced positions that became available in the last 10, 20 years. There's no way "regular" genX-er can afford a house in major metropolitan area, unless he or she is cashing in on some stock options. And most young people ARE in debt, and don't care much about it. Considering that they (we) will also be likely to be stuck with a bill for wars and tax cuts from "dubya" administration, energy and environmental problem (in addition to lack of credibility - political or monetary from the rest of the world), things don't look so great.

What absolutely surprises me is that a lot of high school dropouts who clean gutters, work construction, plumbing or carpenting jobs are actually "in the plus" compared to people who went through college and grad school and now have 50K in debt and not much in terms of job prospects in their field. It seems like too many people took "go to college" advice too seriously and now we have such an overproduction of college educated people, while someone has to build houses for the rich, and get rewarded for it handsomely.
This is why I am all for legalizing illegal immigrants.

By Ponderer of things (not verified) on 05 Jun 2006 #permalink