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FEBRUARY 6, 2006

Up Against It At 25

Why America's
20- and 30-Somethings
Can't Get Ahead

By Tamara Draut
Doubleday; 277pp; $22.95

Why Now Is a Terrible Time
to Be Young

By Anya Kamenetz
Riverhead; 265pp; $23.95
(Readers' Reviews below)
Editor's Review Star Rating
Why America's 20- and 30-Somethings Can't Get Ahead and Generation Debt: Why Now is a Terrible Time

The Good Two perceptive jeremiads on the economic woes of young people today.

The Bad Both books tend to overstate the problem.

The Bottom Line The bum deal that the authors describe is far from fantasy.

Generation DebtTamara Draut and Anya Kamenetz have a long list of grievances: Flawed government policies have forced many students to borrow huge sums for college. Once they enter an increasingly competitive workforce, these young people find that traditional benefits, such as health care, have become scarce. A consumer culture nudges them toward credit-card dependency. Meanwhile, an older generation of self-satisfied baby boomers will soon begin retiring, sucking up government resources. The authors' complaints are aired in two new and often compelling books: Draut's Strapped: Why America's 20- and 30-Somethings Can't Get Ahead and Kamenetz' Generation Debt: Why Now Is a Terrible Time to Be Young. The volumes are similar economic jeremiads, although Kamenetz is the better writer and Draut the more knowing policy maven.

If you're thinking that you've heard enough already -- what's with these kids? -- then you should definitely read one of these books. The authors' insistence that they've struggled more than any previous generation may annoy you. The research and statistics they cite may seem skewed. I couldn't be a more understanding reader -- my recent BusinessWeek story "Thirty and broke: The real price of a college education today" (Nov. 14, 2005) looked at how student-loan debt was constraining the lives of three graduates. Yet even I found the books somewhat irritating.

But to get over that, try looking at Strapped and Generation Debt as guides to what may be a foreign culture full of young people whose professional ambitions are often frustrated and whose expectations of material comfort may never be met. You could come away thinking that they have a point. Or at least you might better understand your own children.

Draut and Kamenetz weave stories of their own lives in with those of others. These personal histories didn't convince me that their generation has it so bad. It's true that the 30-something Draut and her husband have an awful lot of student debt. But she's director of the economic opportunity program at Demos, a think tank in New York, not an ill-paid temp. Kamenetz, meanwhile, graduated from Yale without any student-loan debt. She's a freelance writer who, at the age of 24, has published a book. It doesn't seem that she's having such a terrible time of it.

Many others they cite have it worse. One of Kamenetz' examples is 24-year-old Nita, who would have been the first in her family to earn a college diploma, but who instead has twice dropped out because of the expense. Now, she's working for the minimum wage at a dollar store. Usman, 28, has tired of his job as a computer programmer. He'd like to get a job coordinating aid to developing countries but is wary of the debt that getting a prerequisite MBA would entail. Dylan, one of Draut's subjects, had to declare bankruptcy only five years out of college. She had built up $10,000 in credit-card debt while toiling at a low-wage job in publishing.

Many of these people feel they've gotten a bum deal. They were raised to dream big, then told they would have to make compromises for the sake of money. They grew up besieged by marketers, and now they are vilified for being overly materialistic. They are dissatisfied and angry at the older generation.

Draut lays the blame on public policies that "have failed to address changing realities in the workplace, in the economy, and in the home." Her solutions range from apprenticeship programs for those in dead-end jobs to more government grants for college students. She would like to see the home-mortgage deduction limited so that it's not, in her terms, another tax boon for the privileged. And she thinks the credit-card industry needs more regulation. Kamenetz isn't specific about policy. But like Draut, she urges youth to get more involved in politics.

In the end, Strapped and Generation Debt are coming-of-age stories. They are full of youthful outrage and disappointment, marred by too little perspective. How you regard them may well depend on your age. While younger readers may see a real crisis, baby boomers will probably view their concerns as nothing more than a phase they should outgrow. I think those boomers would be wrong.

By Susan Berfield
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