The It-Sucks-To-Be-Me Generation

Twentysomethings who can’t stop whining about how the economy is screwing them.

Download the MP3 audio version of this story here, or sign up for Slate’s free daily podcast on iTunes.

Oh, it’s so hard to be young these days! Just crack open Generation Debt: Why Now Is a Terrible Time To Be Young, by Anya Kamenetz, or Strapped: Why America’s 20-and-30-Somethings Can’t Get Ahead, by Tamara Draut, and you’re plunged into a world of darkness and sorrow.

This is, with apologies to the Broadway musical Avenue Q, the “It Sucks To Be Me” Generation. To hear these authors tell it, college graduates (and twentysomethings who haven’t gone to college) are in a world of hurt. The deck is stacked against them: student loans and credit-card debt, budget deficits and McJobs, high housing prices and generational warfare waged by more-numerous baby-boomers.

The economic jeremiad written by a twentysomething is a cyclical phenomenon. People who graduate into a recessionary/post-bubble economy inevitably find the going tough, which compounds the usual postgraduate angst. And with their limited life experience and high expectations, they tend to extrapolate a lifetime from a couple of years. I know. Back in the early 1990s, when my cohort and I were making our way into the workforce in a recessionary, post-bubble environment, I wrote an article on precisely the same topic for Swing,the lamentable, deservedly short-lived David Lauren twentysomething magazine. If memory serves, the headline was something like “Generation Debt.”

Of course, as I penned those words on my tiny, crappy Mac and rode my bike through Midtown to deliver the piece (that’s how things were done before the Internet), the economy was beginning to heat up. What followed were seven fat years in which exciting new industries were created, the stock market rose, and interest rates fell. As the 1990s wore on, most of my pals who had lamented their student loans, crappy jobs, and gross apartments found great jobs, loving spouses, and better housing.

And so, here we are again. Now, today’s twentysomething authors are clearly onto something. College is more expensive today in real terms. There’s been a shift in student aid—more loans and fewer grants. The Baby Boomers, closer to retirement, are sucking up more dollars in benefits. There’s more income volatility and job insecurity than there used to be. So, why are these books—Generation Debt in particular—annoying?

It’s not that the authors misdiagnose ills that affect our society. It’s just that they lack the perspective to add any great insight. Writing in the New York Times this weekend, economics reporter David Leonhardt calledStrapped,“a grim tale of one-sided generational warfare.” Draut argues that “with the possible exception of having a larger array of entertainment and other goods to purchase, members of Generation X appear to be worse off by every measure” than prior generations. Huh? How about the Internet and Starbucks coffee and Lipitor and not having to worry so much about AIDS or crime or Mutual Assured Destruction or getting drafted into the Army and getting sent to Vietnam?

Also, many of the economic issues the authors identify—job insecurity, low savings rate, income volatility, the massive ongoing benefits cram-down—affect everybody, not just twentysomethings. And the people hurt most by these escalating trends aren’t young people starting out. They’re folks in their 50s and 60s, middle-managers at Delphi whose careers have ended, coal miners in West Virginia who face death on the job, the people at IBM who just saw their pensions frozen.

Today’s twentysomethings, by contrast, have their whole lives in front of them. Want a cheaper house? Quit Manhattan and move to Hartford, Conn. Want to make more money? Pick a different field.

In Kamenetz’s book, there are plenty of poor, self-pitying upper-middle-class types, disappointed that they can’t have exactly what they want when they want it. Sure, it’s tough to live well as a violinist or a grad student in New York today; but the same thing held 20 years ago, and 40 years ago. To improve their lot, twentysomethings have to do the same things their parents should be doing: saving more, spending less, building skills that are marketable, and aligning aspirations with abilities. It’s tough to have a bourgeois life at 26.

Kamenetz also makes cavalier statements about economics and career development. “The job market sucks,” she proclaims. It may not be as good as it was in the 1990s, but suck is a pretty strong term. She complains that a $700 personal computer, a necessity for any young person, is expensive. Huh? Computing is incredibly cheap. The first PC I bought, that crappy, tiny Mac, cost $2,000 in 1990 dollars.

Kamenetz complains that: “No employer has yet offered me a full-time job with a 401(k), a paid vacation, or any other benefits beyond the next assignment. I have a savings account but no retirement fund. I can’t afford preschool fees or a mortgage anywhere near the city where I live and work.” Of course, Kamenetz doesn’t have kids to send to preschool. And chances are, by the time she does, she’ll be able to afford preschool fees. Most people in their 20s don’t realize that their incomes will rise over time (none of the people I know who have six-figure incomes today had them when they were 25), that they will marry or form a partnership with somebody else, thus increasing their income, and that they may get over having to live in the hippest possible neighborhood.

Look. It’s tough coming out of Ivy League schools to New York and making your way in the world. The notion that you can be—and have to be—the author of your own destiny is both terrifying and exhilarating. And for those without marketable skills, who lack social and intellectual capital, the odds are indeed stacked against them. But someone like Kamenetz, who graduated from Yale in 2002, doesn’t have much to kvetch about. In the press materials accompanying the book, she notes that just after she finished the first draft, her boyfriend “proposed to me on a tiny, idyllic island off the coast of Sweden.” She continues: “As I write this, boxes of china and flatware, engagement gifts, sit in our living room waiting to go into storage because they just won’t fit in our insanely narrow galley kitchen. We spent a whole afternoon exchanging the inevitable silver candlesticks and crystal vases, heavy artifacts of an iconic married life that still seems to have nothing to do with ours.” The inevitable silver candlesticks? Too much flatware to fit in the kitchen? We should all have such problems.

And does her fiance have one of those crap temporary jobs all the drones in her generation are destined to hold forever? Not really. He’s a software engineer at Google.