Do today’s youth have it harder?

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Massive student loans and credit card debt combined with mediocre jobs and iffy health benefits are making the 21st century a lousy time to try to make it on your own.

That’s what a 25-year-old Village Voice freelance writer argues in her book, “Generation Debt: Why Now is a Terrible Time to be Young,” (Riverhead Books, $23.95), published earlier this year. Anya Kamenetz laments that young people often have to work several jobs and take on massive debt to go to college and many don’t finish.

Kamenetz, a 2002 Yale grad who admits she’s had it better than most in her peer group, weaves in first-person accounts from young people in her book. Some are disheartening – like that of a young man who dropped out of college because his parents couldn’t help him out and he couldn’t get enough loans. Others are encouraging – like that of a woman who got out from under $12,000 in credit card debt.

I caught up with Kamenetz to chat about Generation Debt – the book and people. Questions and answers were edited for brevity and clarity.

What are the solutions to Generation Debt?

On an individual basis, I really advocate educating yourself on finances in a way you did not learn in school – most schools – and setting up automatic savings plans, taking advantage of personal retirement accounts. Very basic stuff. On the political side, I encourage them to get involved. Hold your governor and state legislature accountable for tuition increases. On a national level, there are a lot of reforms that I propose in the book like on student loan funding. Look for someone (in political races) who advocates national health care. Young people are the largest group without health care.

You graduated from Yale with no student debt. How?

My grandparents pitched in quite a bit of money. It was because I got into an Ivy League school that they decided to subsidize it. I had scholarships as well.

Given your debt-free Yale education and the fact that you live in Manhattan, when many young new-to-New Yorkers are relegated to Queens, how can you relate to your more economically downtrodden peers?

Gosh. First of all, I pay $800 a month, which is not outrageous for New York. I could save money by living in Queens but I also travel around a bit and work from home and so it kind of makes sense. Overall, I approach this as a journalist. I am interested in representing young people across the economic spectrum. But when you ask how I relate to it, it’s the thing that affects people across the spectrum – uncertainty. Industries going under. Am I going to be able to get health insurance? This year I was offered health insurance for the first time by the Voice.

How are this generation’s issues different from struggles previous younger generations have complained of?

It has always been tough starting out. The difference today is the quality of jobs is going down. And, in order to get a decent middle-class job you have to have a college degree. It takes longer to get your education and get out on your own. Now it takes so much longer for people to complete the transitions, to become financially independent.

Looking back, would you still have gone to Yale to be a writer? You note in the book that when you finished it cost 300 percent more than when your father graduated from there.

That is an open question. I was doing internships and getting my feet wet and thinking about my career even when I was in school. That was something that was looked askance at in the Ivy League. My senior year I could take a couple different seminars in things I was interested in but weren’t necessary to my major. (She majored in English and noted that Yale doesn’t offer a journalism program.) Or, I could go three days a week to the Voice to intern. That was the decision I made and I have to say it paid off very well. It was not the mainstream choice. The stakes were different for me. That is obviously unfortunate.

What’s your advice for high school seniors as they consider college?

The question I have to pose to people is: What are you hoping to get out of your college degree? It is not an automatic pass to a good job. If you aren’t sure what you want maybe take a gap year and decide what you want to do. Have a clear plan in mind. It will mean more to you.

Some say it’s expectations of the younger set that are out of whack – that we want big-screen TVs over retirement nest eggs. Any merit to that and any advice?

We have grown up marinated in this very heavy advertising environment. We do feel this pressure to have the latest and greatest stuff. I de-emphasize that in the book because there is a limit to what personal responsibility can do when there are real income shortfalls and lack of security and plastic is picking up the slack on that.

What about for 20- and 30-somethings who do have good jobs and still have too much credit card debt?

I talk in the book about a girl who literally worked for a credit card company and had $12,000 in credit card debt not because of an income problem but because she just was a shopaholic. She put in spending controls. She put in a one-month delay when she saw a new pair of shoes. You have to look at your own lifestyle and see where the fat is.

Did you ever think you’d be writing about personal finance at such a young age – before you even had a retirement account?

Not at all. Frankly, I didn’t find these topics that interesting until I started seeing the impact they have on people’s lives.

Check out Anya Kamenetz’s blog: http://anyakamenetz.blogspot.com.

Amy Baldwin covers money-related topics for 20- and 30-somethings in “Out of the Red.” Check out her blog at http://blogs.charlotte.com/out-of-the-red/. Have a question about your personal finances? Contact her at (704) 358-5179 or abaldwin@charlotteobserver.com. Leave your name and daytime phone number.

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