DOASKDOTELL BOOK REVIEW of Anya Kamenetz’s Generation Debt


Author (or Editor):  Anya Kamenetz

Title:  Generation Debt: Why Now Is a Terrible Time to Be Young

Fiction? No

Publisher:  Riverhead (Penguin)

Date:  2006

ISBN:  1-59448-9-7-6

Series Name:

Physical description: hardbound, 267 pgs

Relevance to doaskdotell: family values, social justice

Review: I heard about this book on Barbara Walter’s “The View” on ABC in early July 2006, when Ms. Kamenetz, now 24 and a graduate of Yale as well as native of Louisiana, appeared.

In her preface, she writes, “I was born into a broke generation.” My first reaction is to think, I am 63, somewhat precarious in semi-retirement. If I was young and “desirable”—someone that people (Oscar Wilde) want around, I would be OK.

Of course, the most obvious tiptop issue is student loan debt, and she begins her book with discussions of how the student debt became so onerous, with the enormous runup in the costs of college education, even at public universities.  Chapter 7 bankruptcy does not discharge student loans, and garnishments to pay them are sometimes easy. The book expands into eight chapters, and covers the gamut of economic and social problems with the general premise that, over several decades after World War II, individuals have gradually had to assume more personal risk just as they won more individual freedoms. That is certainly true. We have gradually drifted back into a society of haves and have-nots, after a period, during the FDR years, of enormous national cohesion that had set the stage for decades of relative stability, that is now slowly unraveling as if a ball of yarn functioning as a toy for a cat.

She discusses the “low wage” problem already discussed by Barbara Ehrenreich and Beth Shulman. She coins the term “crap jobs” as temporary, interim jobs, sometimes highly skilled, though, and outsourced to save companies money. She’ll come back later to the plight of unions (an as working as a “salt”).

She provides a good conceptual discussion of all of the entitlement programs (social security, Medicare, Medicaid) that have provided the safety net. Much of the controversy over the solvency of social security, particularly, hangs on the IOU instruments that the government floats, and what could happen if they were ever called in (rather like margin calls in 1929, perhaps). She moves from there back to the twining discussion of the family, and all of the various problems. She refers to Philip Longman and his concern about falling birth rates, about the need for people to work longer, and to the postponement of marriage and children as probably unavoidable given today’s economic traps. She mentions Ann Crittenden and the decreased value that society seems to put on motherhood, but believes that this has an economic explanation.

What is her solution? The overall theme seems to be that of a society that has become overly competitive as government has withdrawn from many areas of responsibility. Conservatives might answer by criticizing the extent to which personal autonomy has been isolated from accountability for others, within the family and community. The author does rehearse the argument for the extended family, and suggests that cohesiveness of the family will be essential in keeping the elderly productive. She missed a big opportunity to explore the subject of filial responsibility laws in many states, which obviously would come into conflict with student debt.



Related: Ann Crittenden: The Price of Motherhood; Philip Longman: The Empty Cradle; Barbara Ehrenreich: Nickel and Dimed


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