25-year-old Pulitzer Prize nominee Anya Kamenetz is worried about her peers, and herself. In her new book Generation Debt: Why Now Is A Terrible Time To Be Young, the Village Voice columnist outlines the key factors damning her age bracket: student loans with exorbitant interest rates, dead-end, low-paying and temporary jobs, lack of health insurance, Social Security instability, and media, culture and families who view her generation as lazy and apathetic. But, according to Kamenetz, all is not lost, and here she emails Gothamist about not hating baby boomers, activism, job prospects, student loans, collegiate inequality, the state of post-Katrina New Orleans (her hometown), and her hopes for the future.
You started writing the Generation Debt column when you were a freelancer at The Village Voice in 2004. Did they approach you with the idea, or did you pitch it? If the former, what was your initial reaction, and how has your thinking on the topic evolved over time?
Laura Conaway, who is now Executive Editor of the Voice, came up with the idea and the name in 2004. Generation Debt: the New Economics of Being Young was a feature series written by multiple writers. Brendan Koerner actually wrote the first piece, The Ambition Tax. After I had contributed three or four pieces, I got interest from some book editors, and the idea of a book evolved really quickly—my first piece ran in April 2004 and I sold the book in July. In December 2004, Conaway and Don Forst, the recently departed e-i-c, offered me a biweekly column of the same name, which continues to this day.
My initial reaction was that I didn't know much about economics, but I did know what it was like being young and trying to make it in the city, and I was interested in politics and what it would take to get young people more involved in changing the disastrous course our country is taking. Since then, learning these ideas and hearing peoples' stories has really shaped my worldview.
Can you summarize the premise of Generation Debt: Why Now Is a Terrible Time To Be Young?
Over the last generation, there's been a sharp drop-off in the quality of opportunities offered to young people, caused by a huge divestment in K-16 education, and the devolution of the job market to this low-wage, service-sector deal on the non-BA side, and part-time, unpaid-intern, temporary, contract, and freelance work on the college-grad side. A college degree is now a crucial pass for entry into the middle class, and yet young people are no more likely to have one than our parents-only 28 percent get one. And for those who do graduate, two-thirds are borrowing student loans, graduating with between $17,600 and $23,000 in debt. Because they can't make ends meet, people under 35 are running up an average of $4000 in credit card debt. We've never sent out any generation into the world with that kind of mini-mortgage on their backs. And the irony is, this withdrawal of support for young people is occurring when the US desperately needs a super-sharp, highly skilled workforce to compete with what's happening in China and India, and to support the retirement of the Baby Boomers.
You'd already been covering these issues for your Voice column when you set out to write the book. What additional research did you do, and what surprised you the most as you delved into the topic?
Like I said, I was really just starting to educate myself when I set out to write the book. I did over 100 interviews with people under 35 all over the country from all walks of life, and read many many books and social-science reports and interviewed about 50 experts on economics, education, labor markets, and other policy stuff.
I guess what surprised me the most is the gulf between the popular media images of young peoples' lives and what they are actually like. Middle-class, working-class kids are working their butts off to stay in school-20, 30 hours a week at a job, plus classes. They have to work so much that it takes them longer to graduate-an average of six years-which means they have to take out more loans, and on and on. I just met a 23-year-old from Wisconsin who is here in New York trying to break into the TV business. He says that out of his whole class in high school, only four that he knows managed to graduate college in four years. And he's here in the city taking jobs behind a camera that only pay $50 a day, because there are a million kids behind him trying to do the same thing.
How do race and sex interact with these generational issues?
Poorly! Crudely, the younger generation is a lot more black and brown than older people are, and that seems to be having some impact on the willingness of older people to invest in them and make sure they get a fair chance. The gap in college attendance between Hispanics and whites was 5 percentage points in the 1970s; it's 11 points today. Bob Herbert ran a column last week pointing out that only a sixth of African-American kids and a twelfth of Hispanics are getting a college degree. Over half of those who do, graduate with unmanageable debt. Public schools, he said, are "hemorrhaging" young people of color. And of course, proportionally far more young men of color end up spending their formative years in the criminal justice system.
When it comes to women, the pay gap persists. And young women who want families are wondering who exactly is going to pay for them. Because of this delayed entry into the workforce, a lot of women in their late 20s are still just getting established in their careers and they can't exactly afford to downshift when they haven't even upshifted yet.
What about regional differences—is it better or worse to be young and looking for work in New York City?
In many industries the job opportunities are still just as concentrated in metropolises as they were two or three decades ago, but of course the cost of housing in places like LA, the Bay Area and New York places a whole other hazard in the way of young people trying to claw their way in. In my research I met people who moved from rural areas to big cities to try to find work, and others who moved to rural areas for a lower cost of living. The one constant is that young people, in general, are far more mobile than in previous generations—they're moving more often, commuting longer—which can allow you to be flexible but also means more instability.
Do most young people only confront these issues once they've finished college and are first starting out in the work world? Is there anything they or their parents can do to pre-empt some of the financial burdens they'll face post-college?
I'd like to reiterate that "most young people" do not finish college. Only half have any college experience at all. It's true, people tend not to face reality until they are in the middle of it. People do have options to avoid financial burdens. It may be realistic to go to a community college for two years and then transfer to a state school. For almost everyone, I would say avoid getting a student credit card. Use a debit card instead. I never had a credit card until I was two years out of school, and then the only one I could get was a Capital One Visa with a $300 limit. Those were good training wheels for me
And it's a good idea for everyone–whether community college or graduate student—to approach your education as more than a period of exploration, as it's often presented to us. The fact is that it's a major investment and if it's a burden on you or your parents, you need to take responsibility to make sure it pays off. That doesn't necessarily mean you have to study accounting. But maximize your exposure to the working world—through internships, shadowing professionals, meeting people in fields you're curious about—and make sure you understand as much as possible about the path from point A, education, to point B, a job.
Or there's always the unplugged option. One girl I talked to lived in communal housing in Davis, California, where she paid $400 a month for room and board, DSL, toothpaste, everything. They had bees and chickens, the whole bit. She saved $10,000 on a $20,000 salary and traveled around the world.
You did an interview with a blog called I Hate Boomers, and certainly the baby boomers receive much of the blame in your book for the present situation of your generation. Do you hate baby boomers? Who's to blame for the financial peril you describe?
Of course I don't hate baby boomers. They're so cute, with their psychedelic daisies and their lava lamps!
It's not a question of placing blame. I mean, I wish that boomers would do everything in their power, including make sacrifices, to make sure that the next generation reaps the benefits of their prosperity. But I also wish states in fiscal crisis wouldn't cut their higher education budgets year after year, and that the student-loan industry didn't have so much power in Congress to keep collecting $17 billion a year in subsidies, and that universities didn't blithely raise tuition 40 percent in the last 5 years with zero accountability, and that Hillary had been more politically adroit and had managed to push through her health-care plan so that Medicare wouldn't be headed for such a crisis, and Bill had had the balls to reform Social Security when he had a budget surplus to work with, and that people my age would vote more often, and that W. had stayed in Texas. But honestly, what can you do?
Aside from concrete financial data, you're also dismayed about th attitudes and judgments about your generation, often deemed lazy and apathetic. How do these attitudes get played out in terms of job opportunities and ambitions—do they become self-fulfilling prophecies? How much combating of these problems can be solved by activism and believing it can be solved, or is this a job only the government can solve?
I don't think that anyone who's out there hustling for a job really lets themselves be personally affected by dumb media stories. I was incredibly impressed by how ambitious almost everyone I talked to was, not just for material things, but to make a mark on the world.
On the other hand, where false portrayals of young people really do hurt is in policymaking. In the book, I compare the image of the lazy "boomerang kid" to the image of the lazy welfare queen of the 1980s. This was a racist, false tale that Reagan concocted in order to make people feel better about cutting assistance to poor mothers and their children. Now we have another offensive, false image of young peoplethat they're laying around, not even trying to help themselves—which makes conservatives feel better about raising the barriers to education. Neal McCluskey, who works for the Cato Institute, is sort of my nemesis on this issue; he's been going around saying that young people don't need any more help getting to college because they have an average $13,000 in income. He neglects to mention that they're working to earn the vast majority of this money. And furthermore, only 19% of this income-about $50 a week-is actually spending money. College students are basically poor! An awful lot of the problems I talk about, like education and health care, are going to require a sea change in federal policy. But in the meantime, raising awareness can really help individuals.
You write that you're still living check to check, even with steady writing work and this book, and haven't had a full-time job with benefits since graduating college. How else have the issues of student loans, jobs, and debt personally affected you—are you a part of Generation Debt?
I've been sort of attacked for talking about my own life in the book, because I'm far from being the perfect poster child for Generation Debt. My grandparents underwrote my college education, and I never went into credit card debt because I didn't have a credit card until 2003. I can't overstate the importance of the head start I got.
That said, I have made a choice to live within my means in order to have the freedom to do what I want to do. I don't mind telling the Internet I made $21,322 in 2004, and $37,000 in 2005, including part of the book advance.
Since both of your parents are writers, so I'm curious how they feel about your take on Generation Debt and your decision to become a full-time writer. Do they wish you had more security or are they happy to see you following in their footsteps?
My parents are very funny on this subject. They think it's great that I'm having this success and all, but they really think that what I should do is go to graduate school and get a nice, cushy, tenured job, just like they, coincidentally, both did. The more I try to tell them about grad school debt and the uncertain academic job market, the more they don't hear me.
What kind of audience are you targeting with the book? You're about to go on tour largely to colleges, but from what you're saying, it seems like most college students aren't going to have the cash to fork over for Generation Debt. Are you selling it to their parents? Are there separate messages you'd like to send to your generation and to the older generations?
I think both parents and people in their teens and 20s will be interested in the book. The message is definitely different for different generations. When I go on TV and on the radio, I'll be saying, hey, take this problem seriously, we're the workforce of tomorrow, we deserve your help. When I speak on campuses or on blogs, I'll be saying, hey, you're not alone in this, get some financial smarts, and get involved.
You recently wrote about Sallie Mae and its student loan policies and activism around decreasing fees and penalties. You've also written about the need for a student movement to support their own interests, stating, "We've been conditioned not to see our personal financial problems as political." Our generation seems fragmented along so many different lines—do you think it's possible for a true student movement to form?
Honestly, I'm not sure. For one thing, our education system lacks the centralized structure that has allowed strong student movements to form in other countries. But on the other hand, when you take a big group of relatively educated, supposedly middle-class people and you poop on them over and over again from on high, that's when movements do tend to form.
Going back to the personal for a moment, do you have any advice for people who are facing huge student loan debts, mounting credit card bills, and low-paying jobs in terms of practical day-to-day living?
Go to annualcreditreport.com and get your free credit report. That's your real-life permanent record and it gives you a starting point for fixing your financial life.
Pay over the minimum payment on your credit cards, even if it's just $10. You can set this up online, automatically. It can save you thousands in interest, depending on the size of your debt.
Open a savings account, even if you're up to your ears in debt. Every time you deposit a freakin' tiny paycheck, put a fixed amount into savings. It compounds over the long term and the next time there's an unexpected expense, you'll have something to fall back on.
This is a great website that tells you all about how to get health care in New York City.
You've said that your political awakening came after the 2000 election. Do you think there's any hope for government support during the present administration? Where would you advise young people to focus their efforts and activism?
You're from New Orleans, and your parents were displaced by Hurricane Katrina. You've been back to do some reporting from the area. What have you observed there recently, and what's the general mood of the people you've spoken with?
I'm so glad you asked! One aspect that I think doesn't come across in the media is just how hard people are working to return to normalcy, even when they're personally crazed with loss, grief and exhaustion, which has pretty much been the mood. Educators are educating, museum people are running museums, construction workers are working construction, bassists are playing bass, and the drive-thru daiquiri shoppe is making daiquiries. It's the most touching thing in the world and I've never experienced a sense of community anywhere as strongly as I did when I was down there in November and December. The storm was a travesty, and the pace of recovery so far is a travesty ten times over, and poor people are getting screwed over big time. But people who live there love that city so much that I can't help sharing their irrational hope that something of its essence will survive.
Last year, you wrote about attempts to unionize a local Starbucks for New York magazine. Do you have an update on what's happening with that? Are you one of those staunch anti-Starbucks people, or do you indulge in the occasional Frappuccino?
Daniel Gross and his comrades are still at it-they've organized three shops in Manhattan now, and several people have been fired for what they say is union activity.
I'm anti-S, but only because I really don't drink coffee. (exception: PJs in New Orleans makes the most awesome cafe granita, frozen espresso-milk-sugar. the Frappucino is a lame imitation). Although when I came back from spending the summer in Moscow in college, the first thing I did was go to the Starbucks at JFK.
Which of your columns or topics you've covered has caused the most controversy or reaction? Where do you see the future of your column going—what issues do you plan to explore? What do you see yourself ideally writing about five years down the road, if you can predict that?
We've recently revised the column format to go back to longer pieces—a page every few weeks, instead of half a page every two weeks. I'm looking forward to writing more about the racial dimensions of Generation Debt, international perspectives on the issue, the history of anti-youth sentiment and policy. And more fun, slice-of-life pieces about the crazy stuff people do to get by.
In five years, I would love to be writing about the new progressive Democratic political consensus, and how our newly elected leaders are struggling heroically to inject some fairness into our society while reversing the ravages on the environment and improving global cooperation.
What gives you hope for the future of Generation Debt?
Our diversity. Our ambition. Our formative years in these dark times, which can't help but give us a taste for peace.
Photo by Nina Subin
Visit www.anyakamenetz.com for more information. Generation Debt: Why Now Is A Terrible Time To Be Young is available now. Anya Kamenetz will read on Saturday, February 4th at 4 pm at Vox Pop on Cortelyou Road, Brooklyn, Saturday, February 18th at Building the Youth and Student Movement for Justice Conference, and Monday, February 27th at 7 pm at Barnes and Noble Astor Place.