The Real World Threw Up All Over Us

How twentysomethings are coping with the recession.

Apprehension, with an enduring edge to it. That’s the general mood among the twentysomethings I’ve heard from during the last several weeks in response to a question I asked about how the recession is making them feel. The fear isn’t just about the present but about the long-term future. Octopuslike, it has many tentacles. But the most strangling aspect, I think, is the perception of my Gen Y e-mailers that they dutifully set up their lives based on assumptions that suddenly no longer apply. They’re anxious because they can’t tell what the new rules of the game will be—or because they think they can tell, and they don’t like what they see coming at them.

“Forgive the inelegant analogy, but it’s like I got on the train I was supposed to and dozed off for a bit and now that I’ve come to I have no idea where the hades we are and I do not recognize any of these stops,” writes a woman, who didn’t want to give her name (let’s call her Shala), who is from Michigan and lives in Brooklyn. She’s actually employed—she graduated from college in 2007 and got a low-paying job for a nonprofit that does digital services for libraries and museums. She says:

It’s looking ahead that is the grim part. I was prepared to worry about choosing a home in a subdivision or the city, how I would invest for retirement and travel, how my siblings and I would split our parents’ properties when they retire or pass away. But now I do not know if I will have much choice about where I live, retirement seems as far away and unreal as my own mortality, and I don’t even know how solvent my parents are—I just hope they can live out their days without going into (much) debt.

Debt rings like a series of deadening thuds through the e-mails I received and the follow-up conversations I’ve had. “For my generation … it seems like the ‘real world’ threw up all over us,” writes Jennifer, who is 22 and graduated from Boston University in May. She’s living in Washington, D.C., splitting a bedroom with another recent graduate she found on, and sleeping on an air mattress. Her college tuition was $44,000 a year, and even with a lot of financial aid, she graduated with $22,000 in debt.

If I were a touch more paranoid, I would think there has been a conspiracy to systematically entrap me and my fellow graduates into an endless cycle of debt. Student loans, buying necessities on credit because the student loan payments bludgeoned my bank account, racking up greater credit card debt than student loan debt, credit scores, having children, taking out another round of loans to pay for their education, wondering if retirement is possible when Social Security is a joke.

After seven months of looking for work, plus an internship, Jennifer found a job with a campaign in Northern Virginia, for $2,250 a month. It’s not enough to cover her debt, but thanks in part to a hardship deferment, she’s up to date on her loans for now, and her parents are helping with health insurance.

Debt is choking twentysomethings higher up the career ladder, too. I heard from another Jennifer, who is 29. Four years ago, she bought a small two-bedroom condo. Now she and her husband—they got married last year—want to move and plan to have kids. “It’s not what I want at this point in my life,” she writes of her condo. “Having spent the past 10 years living in suburban multifamily housing, I’m sick of hearing my neighbor’s alarm clocks, schlepping 350 feet between my car and my front door, and putting up with the guy downstairs who entertains on his patio until 2 a.m.”

But if Jennifer and her husband sold, they would take a loss and have nothing left for a down payment on a new place. Nor do they feel like they can look ahead and see a higher income. Jennifer makes more than her husband, but she thinks she has “hit the ceiling” at her job. “I work in local government and there’s definitely a boys vs. girls mentality.” Her husband spends half his paycheck on student loan debt—together, they pay off $1,800 a month. If one of them gets laid off, they would have no cushion to land on. “Sure, other people have it worse, and I am thankful that my husband and I are both employed,” Jennifer says. “Still, this is the time in our lives when we’re supposed to be making a future for ourselves, yet our seemingly good salaries don’t get us anywhere. In 10 years, when I’m 39 and my husband is 40, we’ll be in exactly the same place we are today—living in a starter condo … with no children of our own.”

Jennifer is beating herself up for one decision she now regrets—spending $10,000 on her wedding and honeymoon last year. Getting married has also meant a higher tax bill. (Are you listening, Congress?) And, as a couple, Jennifer and her husband aren’t eligible for a first-time homebuyer tax credit since she already owns.

I got another e-mail highlighting a love-and-relationship regret, from Heidi, who graduated from college in 2005 and landed a job with an architecture firm. “My employer was fantastic and I thought things were going to be smooth sailing while I worked to become a licensed architect,” she writes. But last August, she moved to another city to be near her fiance. She found a not-as-good job. And then she got laid off. That was in November. In the months since, she’s wrangled only two job interviews and no offers. Her fiance’s company is going through a second round of reorganization, and while he survived the first round, it doesn’t look good this time. He has no savings. Her unemployment insurance is running out. Going out with friends makes her feel resentful about the money she no longer has. “I have become more of a hermit and don’t like to leave the apartment anymore,” she says.

One step down from there, emotionally speaking: Last week I talked to a 26-year-old named Candice who lives in North Carolina. She’d written to say that she can’t pay for therapy for her depression anymore because she has no job and absolutely no money. (“I have some spare change that I keep in a change purse in my dresser,” she writes.) In August, Candice graduated from James Madison University with a master’s degree in English. She is the first person in her immediate family to go to college. She wants to get a Ph.D. in literature and women’s studies, to study the works of Margaret Atwood. But she can’t afford to. Her parents, meanwhile, are having trouble understanding why she can’t find work after months of searching. They’re both ill and have to spend heavily for prescription medications. It is all an enormous, hopeless-feeling strain.

Since twentysomethings are often accused of whining, let me say that the e-mails in my inbox don’t do that. They are about scrambling to make sense of changed, and reduced, expectations and are not filled with self-pity, or at least not of the maudlin, unjustified sort. Generation Y has a pretty good argument for being the worst off right now. They may not have kids and significant family responsibilities and bills yet. But along with their school debt, they havea lot of loss to contend with as they peer forward into the uncertainty ahead.

Some of them, also, are adjusting to not expecting much from work or ambition. There’s a bad side to this: Shala talked about a long wait for a promised promotion, thinking of herself as someone who would “demand fair pay and fairly value my own worth.” Now she doesn’t want to insist on the title change because she’s afraid the company would then have to pay her more—and she’d be more vulnerable to a layoff. Yet there’s some good to be fished out of reduced expectations, too. Shannon, who works for AmeriCorps in New York City, wrote about how getting used to a basic lifestyle makes her less, rather than more, worried about what comes next. (It surely helps that she has no college debt.)

Shannon wrote earnestly about her hope that the recession would get us all back on track by encouraging Americans “to better understand or at least admit the interconnectedness of our society.” I’m not so sure. But I’m glad there’s still a bit of youthful optimism out there.


I got so many great e-mails from Gen Y-ers—you are a hugely articulate bunch of readers!—that I’m going to write another column discussing their decisions about school: whether to go to grad school or stay there, etc. More thoughts and stories about that are welcome. Send them to me at E-mail may be quoted in Slate unless the writer stipulates otherwise. If you want to be quoted anonymously, please let me know.