I worked my way through college in five years with scholarships, grants, loans, and three jobs. That makes me a member of “Generation Debt”—one of the twenty- and thirtysomethings born into an era of unsurpassed opportunities and unprecedented arrears. On average, we graduate from college more than $20,000 in hock, facing a job market with declining earnings and nonexistent job security. “With so many of us heading into our 30s with five figures of debt,” writes Anya Kamenetz in this sometimes brilliant, sometimes banal book, “saving for a far-off retirement sounds like a joke—even breaking even seems like a remote possibility.”
Through dozens of interviews and a barrage of statistics, Kamenetz, a 25-year-old Yale graduate and Village Voice columnist, documents higher education’s historic transformation into an $85-billion-a-year loan industry. But she often substitutes pop-culture clichés and rhetoric about wealth redistribution for tough questions about policy and personal responsibility. How much debt is due to an unfair system, and how much is due to bad decisions by young people or their parents?
Either way, debt sidetracks careers and suffocates dreams. Faced with lingering loans and credit card bills, too many young people feel they must, as one young grad tells Kamenetz, “go through your life doing something you don’t want to do…. If your only option is taking out loans, it sucks you right back into the system.” For me, the American Dream is still alive—it’s just under the table, hiding out from Sallie Mae and Citigroup.