Young and broke

Anya Kamenetz claims there’s only one topic more private in America than sex. It’s money.

During her tenure as one of the Village Voice’s youngest columnists, Kamenetz discovered this little secret when she questioned why so many of her peers were foundering in the muck of student loans and credit-card debt. Why were so many unable to find or hold good jobs? Why did they stumble from one uncommitted relationship to another? Just as important, why was no one talking about it?

“Collectively, the mass media has stamped an image of 18-to-34-year-olds as slackers, overgrown children, and procrastinators,” she writes, “as though we’re intentionally dragging our heels to avoid reaching adulthood.”

With Generation Debt: Why Now Is a Terrible Time to Be Young, Kamenetz disputes that impression. Hers is an erudite work that comes, refreshingly, without an attitude. The book deftly distills a massive amount of dense information on and about the generation in question, covering public policy as well as economic, fiscal and demographic data. Then she weaves in her previous reporting from the Voice (which garnered her a Pulitzer Prize nomination) with recent interviews with 100 young Americans.

The result is an edifying and provocative read.

In each of eight chapters, Kamenetz dissects one subject. Regarding temporary work, she notes that businesses have steadily cut costs by limiting their numbers of full-time employees. Thus, jobs are harder to find and to hold on to, she writes. According to Kamenetz, the jobs haven’t really evaporated or gone overseas. “They’ve been downgraded into crap jobs. Crap job isn’t the industry term. Businesses call it ‘internal outsourcing,’ contingent, freelance, part-time, or contract work.”

What was once just a technique for squirming through tough times has morphed into a bizarrely named and seemingly accepted business strategy: long-term temporary jobs.

Kamenetz lifts the nasty veil on the smarmy practice of perma-temping, in which large employers, such as Time Warner and Microsoft, fire entire departments and then rehire everyone, reclassifying people as temporary workers. Presto. No benefits, no security and no invite to the Christmas party.

“Manpower, the nation’s largest temp agency, has more American workers on its books than Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest private employer,” she writes. “Temporary and contingent employment is the second-fastest growing industry in the country. And just like IKEA couches, crap jobs are disproportionately a young people’s thing.”

Painlessly, she drops in bite-sized nuggets of history, providing a framework. If readers have forgotten what the Morrill Acts, the GI Bill or Lyndon Johnson’s 1965 Higher Education Act did for Americans (and why it matters), she brings them up to speed.

Kamenetz does more than titillate. She backs up her conclusions with a smooth blend of facts and opinions and then swirls in real-life stories. She doesn’t play the blame game, either, showing that these problems are much bigger than individual family dramas.

As screwed up as the situation is, Kamenetz doesn’t cut and run. Generation Debt provides answers. She lays out suggestions for parents, concerned older people and the 18- to 34-year-olds. Some tips are achievable immediately. Others require long-range planning and organization.

Kamenetz has done an admirable job of gathering the information necessary to start the discussion. However, she says, something’s still missing: you.

“American college students need to experience that ‘click’ moment, as the feminists of the 1970s called it, and realize that our personal problems are also political,” she writes. “If young people don’t march on our own behalf, who will march for us?”