Generation Debt Hardcover – Feb 7 2006
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From Publishers Weekly
Surveying the economic realities facing today's 20- and 30-somethings, 24-four-old Kamenetz decides, "It's not too dramatic to say that the nation is abandoning its children." Thanks to skyrocketing tuition and changes in federal funding, college students are graduating with an average of almost $20,000 in loans at the same time that jobs have become scarcer, real wages have dropped and the cost of health care has soared. Is it any wonder that kids are boomeranging home and racking up credit card debt? Kamenetz, who first wrote about these issues for the Village Voice, intertwines an analytical overview of the new economic obstacles with interviews of the financially strapped and descriptions of her own experience struggling to make ends meet as a freelance journalist. Her book is livelier than Tamara Draut's similarly themed Strapped, but lighter in its analysis of law and policy. Most interestingly, Kamenetz documents how our perception of the crisis is shaped by self-centered boomers who have lost touch with their children's plight. More of a white paper than a guidebook, this volume doesn't offer under-40s much personal financial advice (that job is taken up by Gener@tion Debt, see review below). It does, however, make clear how imperative it is that we find solutions to these problems as quickly as possible. (Feb.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
A new book tackles the 18-to-35-year-old generation's problems--those they face and those they create.Kamenetz believes the younger generation is hampered by the fact that salaries and job opportunities haven't kept up with drastically increasing costs of living. Because of the exorbitant cost of college, many young people can't afford to go, and those who do go graduate with huge debt. Graduates expect to pay off those loans once they get jobs, but entry-level jobs often come with low wages. The job prospects are even worse for those who don't finish or who don't go to college at all--some can't even afford living on their own, another drastically increased cost. The solution to these problems? Kamenetz makes a passionate argument for young people to take action, such as lobbying the government as a cohesive group and being practical and frugal about money matters.
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
I currently have a child in high school and I watch with amazement as districts push more and more students into the college merry-go-round with little thought as to whether or not they will be able to handle the work, or even finish a degree. At the same time I have watched as programs that would be very useful to the majority of today's kids are cut because the world has become so focused on testing and keeping little "Johnny" up to speed when he should be held back.
An example is the auto shop programs from when I was in high school. You could leave high school and get a job working as an auto mechanic directly from school. The programs now don't have the financing to buy the computer technology needed for these kids to actualy work as mechanics, even though the vast majority of graduating students will never go to college and will need some type of vo-tech training before they can become employable.
As is pointed out in this book, maybe we should re-examine the needs and desires of todays students to see what classes will actually beneft them. Adding classes which will allow students to work directly from school would decrease their debt loading and it would free up college space, as well as help employers get emplyees with a good solid training in a field that they want to work in.
I am fortunate enough to live in a district that is looking in that direction and is trying to figure out what classes the kids of today need to become employable in a global economy without having to become mired in debt while obtaining a degree thay may never use.
Generation Debt is at its best when it emphasizes statistics and constant dollar comparisons. This is where it's easiest to see that young face financial challenges largely unknown and unpredicted by earlier generations. (In the interests of full disclosure, I should point out that I'm 22 and a fairly recent graduate.) Even if one doesn't accept that recent graduates are worse off per se, it's difficult not to feel that they don't have nearly as many financial certainties as their predecessors.
Where it fails is the solutions. Kamenetz clearly isn't a historian or an economist; even more problematic is her apparent failure to understand that this can and should limit her ability to suggest fixes to the current situation. She clearly considers conservative economics a failure, but what she writes about them reveals that she hasn't studied them very hard, or at any rate not very deeply. It's possible that they are indeed in large part responsible for the current situation, but as her evaluation of them never rises above the superficial, it's difficult to know how correct she is. Similarly, it would have been nice if she'd anticipated some of the possible downsides to the largely socialistic solutions she suggests. Kamenetz is clearly intelligent, but she doesn't seem to understand how serious intellectual debate works.
Overall it's hard not to feel like she's out of her league when discussing these issues, and I can't help but think that her editor would have done better to assign her a coauthor. Then we might have had a book equal to its thesis.
Declining opportunities for young people, degradation of their standard of living, increased costs of college education, while indeed occurring, are illustrated by a set of stunningly absurd examples.
"Stella" from Chapter 2 borrowed $5000 per semester when she only needed $1000 for tuition (but she qualified for a higher loan amount -- why not to have it all?) and spent all of it on moving out of Mom's home and then spent some more on vacations (paid via credit cards) eventually running her debt to $33,000. While Stella's problems were clearly self-inflicted, Kamenetz blames the society that does not prepare young people for life. Do we need a nanny-state then to remove any responsibility from young people in making sound decisions?
"Latoya" from Chapter 3, "had funding for college, from Pell Grants, and she had support from her mother, but they weren't enough to keep her in school." If you wonder why -- "she didn't show the same hunger as her contemporaries". A paragraph later Kamenez contradicts herself with the praise of Latoya's "school performance, ambition, and background". But the society failed her and so she had to go (horror!) to the Navy.
"Jerman" also from Chapter 3 was born to a family in good financial standing that owned multiple homes and wineries in California. Yet we can see how the society failed Jerman and his siblings. Jerman's brother had had five kids by five different girls. Jeremy's sister had had four kids from two men by the age of 21. Jerman himself graduated from high school, however "along the way he got involved in drug scene". Obviously the "drug scene" is a politically correct description of an activity that brought Jeremy a three month sentence in a jail for "reckless driving and possession of methamphetamine". Drug dealer killed Jeremy's buddy "over a bad debt" (wonder what kind of debt that was, not educational loan, I suppose?) and two more of his friends' lives were "lost to violence".
Next stop, Nita 22, was "working these dumb jobs with the idea of saving money to go to college. But you never truly save enough money. You get a pile of money and just blow it." Of course it is the same story -- instead of saving Nita ran up her $10,000 credit card debt "shopping, eating out, and partying".
We are led to believe that the society failed Stella, Latoya, Jerman, Nita, and many other kids. Surely the society is responsible that our youths contract the same illness of rampant consumerism that brought the current economic crisis upon us, but should we forgo the notion that one bears one's responsibility for making bad decisions?
Kamenez complains that Yale's tuition went up from $31k to $39k in just seven years. "How can they justify it?" -- Kamenetz's father wonders. How about the most obvious answer -- because of the raising demand (you don't have to go to Yale instead of the Ohio State, and you don't have to buy Mercedes instead of Honda or Ford simply because all your friends or neighbors have done so). American consumerism is equally obvious in college education as it is in retail sales and real estate. The book quotes that "enrollment in higher education doubled from 7 million in 1970 to 14 million in 2002, while the total population of young people barely budged from 36 to 39 million".
From my own experience of a university professor (belonging to the generation currently below 35 Kamenez is addressing her book to), many of the current college students should not be in higher education in the first place. Liberal and socialistic writers will led you to believe that college education of as many students as possible is for "public good", but they cannot change a simple fact that many of them are simply not a "college material".
Kamenetz assesses, "I don't think anyone would be willing to say what percentage of America's population should ideally be earning a bachelor's degree, though we can certainly agree that the current number is too low". Too low? Can we "certainly agree"? Not if you read the book further, as 30 pages later Kamenetz confesses that "most economic analysts agree that the jobs of the next decade will require only slightly more educational credentials than today's do. In 2002, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 26.9 percent of the workforce needed a college degree to do their jobs. The share will rise by just one percentage point by 2012, says the progressive nonprofit Economic Policy Institute".
Why providing more people with college education is for public good then? Aren't all those multiplying college graduates supposed to compete against each other with many of them losing in the subsequent job competition to their frustration and despair? Isn't a better decision for a young person of below than average intellectual ability (and believe it or not, but half of the population is below that average) not to go to college and not to accumulate insurmountable amount of debt with no job prospects? Isn't the "degree inflation" promoted when herds of new college degree holders cannot find jobs? Isn't this what's causing spike in tuition prices of brand name colleges, since most of college degrees from second-tier institutions are not well regarded anymore by employers? (Kamenetz rightly notices that high school diploma is already not worth much these days.)
The book is nothing more than a disarray of stories lacking any meaningful analysis beyond liberal demagogy. There are blames to put and things to change in our present educational system and the way the society tends to its younger people, but the book offers little insight into it.
Kamenetz does adequately convey just how she and her peers think, which is perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the book. The kids she describes are financially illiterate, with not even the remotest understanding of the far-reaching impacts of their financial decisions. Naturally they embrace the material trappings of modern society (iPods anyone?) but are frustrated they can't meet their financial obligations. Has society really failed these kids? To a large extent, that's what Kamenetz is suggesting. To her, taxpayers are apparently unresponsive to the plight of these poor kids. Never mind that most of them should have chosen more viable majors, attended cheaper public universities or community colleges, worked the whole time they were attending, and avoided debt like the plague. But, oh dear, that would ruin the whole college experience, would it not? Here's a newsflash. A college education is not a constitutional right. It's not even a guarantee to a successful life. And it most certainly is not the responsibility of already oppressively burdened taxpayers to further subsidize not only poor financial decisions made by students, but lavish, unnecessary spending by university bureaucracies.
I happen to work in the IT industry in the Midwest alongside a number of representatives from Generation X/Y and they are vastly more successful than the people interviewed for this book. And many of these kids weren't computer science or engineering majors. They went to school to learn any number of disciplines but were able to apply their knowledge to IT. In a word, they adapted--a vital skill in an uncertain job market. Nearly all of them went to state schools, worked one or more jobs while attending school, continue to live frugally, work hard, and find ways to add value to the organization every day. And I'm certain that their careers will reward them for it.
Kamenetz did provide a couple of pointers on the importance of living on less than you make (gasp!), but most of her advice either promoted activism or called for more taxpayer dollars to subsidize humanities majors hell-bent on a high society lifestyle on meager incomes in tax hells like New York City. Apparently the biggest thing lost on Kamenetz and those she interviewed is just old-fashioned common sense. In that respect, some of the blame has to be fall on parents of these generations. This is what happens when you indulge your kids and shield them from financial realities. But I really can't expect this author, who was given a $130,000 education, to understand or to articulate this. If my kids grow up this clueless, I will be devastated. Even at their young age, they are learning about the evils of debt, the importance of a college education that imparts practical skills, and the importance of work--regardless of financial aid.
Indeed, life isn't fair, and it never will be. But it's not impossible to make good choices, both vocational and financial, and to do the best you can with the talents you develop. This is as true today as it ever was in this country. But those who are looking to improve their chances will not find this book enlightening. On the contrary, they will probably find additional reasons to continue their self-pity. For those who want to achieve big things, they will find ways to be smart, positive, reliable, and highly productive employees or entrepreneurs. They will pursue financial education, shun credit card debt, and always save a part of their earnings. That's really the secret that eludes the author. I've seen it work again and again. It's not rocket science. This is the benefit of life experience. But since Kamenetz is young, idealistic, and mired in the victim mentality, she never mentions it. And, in a nutshell, this is why the book will fail to ignite the kind of activism the author intends and the results she so desperately desires.
Miz Kamenetz of course comes from a privileged background. Her parents were professors, well connected in the publishing industry, and she went to Yale (!). On her website, she describes not making her credit card payments for 3 months, while on a trip to Europe. Making a few guesses about her age and the exchange rates in the last few years, I'd say that was a pretty unwise decision, even if it did net her a marriage proposal from a google employee, and an eventual position giving finance advice for Yahoo. It is also symptomatic of a privileged generation, whining, essentially about its good fortune. 30 years ago, only people like Kamenetz would have been able to go to Yale, get credit to buy very nice things they can't afford, and take ill considered trips to europe. I don't know which generation she's talking about which had it better than ours: any such generation I can think of had considerably less access to both college education, credit (which is, frankly, nice to have: beats taking out loans from the local fingerbreaker) and easy living. A book by a Marie Antoinette who is unacquainted with anything remotely resembling financial hardship adds absolutely nothing to the discussion.
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