Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Book Review: Generation Debt

I recently got my hands on Generation Debt: Why now is a terrible time to be young by U.S. journalist Anya Kamenetz.

In the book, Ms. Kamenetz goes through the myriad of financial pitfalls that face young people today. From credit cards, to student debt, to affordable housing, to the constant cycle of internships and underemployment, to total lack of employment, to the cost of children and finally marriage, the author covers them all at one point or another. The book is written from a first-person perspective of someone who's lived through a lot of it and found her way out, but the real meat of the book is in the personal anecdotes Ms. Kamenetz collected about money from hundreds of twentysomethings from all walks of life.

I wasn't surprised to learn that Ms. Kamenetz is a Yale grad because at the end of the day this book reads a little like an essay -- complete with citations and studies to quantifiably back up her contentions.

I must say I'm of two minds on the book. At first, I wasn't all that fond of it, mainly for it's somewhat whiny tone, and the way she seemed to just arbitrarily blame the greediness of baby boomers for the plight that befalls her generation.

I'm generally reluctant to buy into the "blame whoever was here before us" mentality because I think it feeds every new generation's arrogant view that it's somehow better from the one before it. Every generation intuitively seems to think that their music is the best, their technology is the most innovative, their political events are the most earth-shattering and generally, that nobody else has ever had their unique set of problems.

Frankly, I don't buy it. I have a history degree, so I'm very much aware that history is full of people who somehow think that they're mysteriously different than everyone else before them. That they're somehow immune to the mistakes that previous generations made.

All the factors she lists ring true to me of my generation, but essentially, I just found it hard to believe that other generations didn't face similar challenges and managed to overcome them en masse. They survived their financial calamities as I'm sure we will when all the hand-wringing is done. As Oz, my favourite character from my former favourite TV show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, once remarked: "Well, we know the world didn't end, because ... check it out."

Still, the book has its moments. Her views on the consequences of giving easy credit to students are bang on -- it's a practice I think needs to be seriously curtailed. Ditto for her thought on the practice of keeping young people permanently underemployed by trapping them in the neverending internship cycle -- being a journalist, it's a cycle I know all too well.

And I also caught myself nodding in agreement with her views on marriage: namely, that financial issues have managed to pervert the marriage decision to the point where young people no longer ask "do we want to be married?" but rather "can we afford to be married?" and "do I want to hitch myself to life for someone who's shown a serious inability to deal with money?"

When I was a kid I never thought money really entered into the decision to get married. But as I age, the prospect of linking up with someone with, say, $40,000 in student loan debt and a $5,000 credit card balance actually enters into it for a lot of my generation.

In Ms. Kamenetz's defence, she does cut out the whining and offers some real practical solutions by the end of the book. I just think she overstates her case a bit. All in all, I'd say the book was well worth a read.

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