The Strapped Generation

As a child in the early 1920s, my maternal grandmother peddled baked goods on gritty New York City streets to help her widowed, Romanian mother put food on the table. Grandma Bessie married a hardworking Polish immigrant and rented an apartment in a leafy section of the Bronx, where my mother and her sister were raised. By the time I was born in 1979, both of my parents had earned graduate degrees without incurring significant debt, and had purchased a two-story colonial in a comfortable New York City suburb.

America in the 20th century afforded my family, and millions of other American Jews, unprecedented social mobility. Today about 55 percent of American Jews have bachelor’s degrees—twice the national average. For our parents and grandparents, striving largely meant thriving, and all but ensured that one generation could provide for the next a superior education, a higher standard of living, and many more choices.

Yet for those coming of age in the early 21st century, traditional markers of success like college and graduate degrees, stable employment and home ownership are increasingly beyond reach, according to two new books that probe the financial plight of the nation’s young adults.

Anya Kamenetz in Generation Debt: Why Now is a Terrible Time to Be Young (Riverhead, 2006, $23.95) and Tamara Draut in Strapped: Why America’s 20- and 30-Somethings Can’t Get Ahead (Doubleday, 2005, $22.95) reveal how the soaring cost of higher education, the chokehold of college and credit card debt, and the proliferation of low-wage, temporary jobs are tempering the ambitions of America’s 20-and 30-somethings.

Much ink, in recent years, has been devoted to the so-called “opt-out revolution.” Newspapers and magazines frequently write about well-educated and well-heeled mothers who leave the workforce to stay home and raise their families. Kamenetz and Draut, in their respective oeuvres, call attention to another opt-out revolution—that of young and capable coeds, who, fearing crushing student loan debt, opt out of college and thereby limit their employment options.

Young people who do manage to earn bachelor’s degrees often find themselves underemployed, working without benefits to repay their student loans, Kamenetz writes in Generation Debt. In this, her first book, she explains how, with the cost of higher education outpacing household incomes and with federal tuition subsidies accounting for an ever smaller fraction of college tuition, students are forced to borrow increasingly large sums of money to get through school “The common thread joining all members of this generation is a sense of permanent impermanence,” writes Kamenetz, a journalist and the daughter of The Jew in the Lotus author, Rodger Kamenetz. “It’s hard to commit to a family, a community, a job or a life path when you don’t know if you’ll be able to make a living, make a marriage last or live free of debt.”

Generation Debt weds extensive qualitative research with reported tales of economic stagnation. Despite its overabundance of choppy, impersonal narratives about the young and cash-strapped, the book offers up pitch-perfect insights into why so many young adults can’t seem to access the American Dream.

Erudite and tightly written, Strapped treads similar terrain but also suggests a bevy of thoughtful ways to reverse the “Debt-for- Diploma System” that keeps young adults sprinting in place, if not slipping behind their older counterparts. Draut—the director of the Economic Opportunity Program at New York based think tank. Demos—refutes the notion, so often propagated in the media, that “Generation Debf is a spoiled and lazy cohort whose sense of entitlement has brought on its economic woes. She argues, instead, that adults “socialized during an era of ‘personal responsibility’ and capitalism on steroids” expect too little from society and too much from themselves.

“They don’t want penthouses or hot tubs or fancy cars,” Draut concludes. “They dream of achieving what we’ve come to classify as a middle-class life. In one generation that dream has become elusive.”