strapped (jennifer M) X generation
26 of 37 people found the following review helpful:
You must read this book!,
February 12, 2006
This review is from: Strapped: Why America's 20- and 30-Somethings Can't Get Ahead (Hardcover)Strapped: Why America's 20- and 30-Somethings Can't Get Ahead (written by Tamara Draut and published two weeks ago by Doubleday) is the book that Gen Xers everywhere will want to staple to the foreheads of their parents and in-laws. If you are over 40, read it to understand why you can't seem to get your children out of your pocketbook (or possibly your basement). If you're under 40, read it and weep with the understanding that the financial chaos of your life is at least not entirely your own fault.
Strapped is an indictment of the unique financial barriers faced by those born between 1971 and 1987 (a.k.a. "Generation X") as they attempt to achieve the traditional earmarks of adulthood - career, homeownership, marriage, and children. Armed with her journalism degree and her Lexis-Nexis account, Draut wastes no ink on cozying up to her readers. She lays out her arguments with a terse certainty and a firing squad of facts that mow down any counterarguments before they even take root.
Most 18- to 34-year-olds will recognize at least some of the barriers Draut identifies. First, the necessity of a college education and the astronomical debt incurred to pursue it. Gen Xers have entered adulthood in the globalized economy of the Information Age, in which blue-collar and manufacturing jobs are no longer a ticket to the middle-class. They must choose between pursuing a professional career or being condemned to a life of low-wage service work. At the same time, tuition costs have skyrocketed while financial aid has been reduced to mostly subsidized loans, resulting in what Draut calls the "debt for diploma" system. A college degree is no longer the intellectual pursuit of those most suited for the professions; it has become essential post-secondary vocational training for which Gen Xers are starting their adult lives in an average of $20,000 worth of debt. If they're lucky, servicing that debt only eats up most of their disposable income. The unlucky ones will spend their lives hounded by the Department of Education for default.
All this is compounded by the death of real wages, benefits, and job security. After adjusting for inflation, Gen Xers are earning an average of $13,000 a year less than their parents were at the same age, while working longer hours for fewer benefits and a greater likelihood of being terminated or laid off. Even ignoring the higher rates of involuntary unemployment, Gen Xers are more likely to bounce from one job to another in pursuit of better earnings and more attractive benefits - such as any health insurance whatsoever.
Higher use of credit completes the perfect storm. With student loans chewing up their comparably meager paychecks, the under-35 set is forced to rely on the deregulated credit industry for any unforeseen expenses, such as car repairs, job losses, and uninsured health care. Saddled with this kind of debt before the age of 30, many young adults are in financial holes they can never climb out of, before their careers are off the ground.
All of this would be bad enough even if Gen Xers didn't mind living like teenagers in their parents' basements, single and childless. The rapid rise in housing prices, coupled with deregulation of the mortgage industry, has created a generation of what Draut calls "permarenters" - young adults who are priced out of the housing market by high downpayments and crippling mortgages. Gen Xers who take the homeownership plunge can count on spending 62% more (for more modest digs) than their parents did at the same age - and going still further into debt.
The current generation of young adults is delaying parenthood significantly - first births to women over 25 has climbed to 50% from only 19% in 1970. Yet Draut contends that the choice to delay or forego childrearing is simply because Gen Xers can't afford babies, which now cost 15% more to raise than it cost our parents to raise us. Most of the increase comes from the need for (low-quality, overpriced) child care because Gen X parents must both work just to meet the basic bills, while our children receive fewer toys and amenities than we did.
I can certainly think of better people to represent my generation than Tamara Draut. Like Cintra Wilson, for example. But much worse people than Draut come to mind easily too. Like Stephanie Klein. Or Suze Orman (whom Draut inexplicably cites in her recommended reading, despite Orman's credo of living on credit cards and her obnoxiously hipster persona in The Money Book for the Young, Fabulous, and Broke, published by Penguin in 2005 and plugged on infomercials until Orman made us not only ashamed of our generation, but ashamed of our species.)
Draut's biggest problem is that she's lived in New York for so long she can say things like "Master's degrees are the new Bachelor's degrees," with no awareness of her own irony. She suffers from the self-obsessed plague which afflicts all New York writers until they are completely unaware that they don't speak for the entire country (what else can possibly explain Maureen Dowd?) They endure a cost-of-living so high that Draut consistently refers to a $50,000 annual salary as "low income."
But we must forgive her this myopic quirk. Not only because she's from New York and can't help it, but because she's got the goods and she's been broadcasting them everywhere from commentator appearances on CNN Headline News to guest columns in the Wall Street Journal. Her relentless, "just the facts, ma'am" style is meticulously documented and unassailably thorough. One gets the feeling she barreled through j-school by working like a tireless dog and then landed the WSJ gig by grabbing the editor's testicles, twisting, and demanding that he listen to her right, by God, now
But Generation X is unlikely to canonize Draut anytime soon. She will get less attention than Al Franken or Jon Stewart because she doesn't supplement her data with any entertaining clownishness. She even lacks the warm humanity of Jonathan Kozol or the smart repartee of Barbara Ehrenreich (Boomers all, I might add). Given the tendency of the Boomers to view their children as whiny, lazy, and self-indulgent, Draut simply can't afford to let any show-biz antics jeopardize her no-nonsense approach. She can't even scold the Boomers for nagging their grown children to work a little harder and save a little more. It wouldn't be fair. Because such advice worked for their generation; it's just not working for their kids.
Besides, Draut doesn't hold up nearly so well when her subject can't easily be reduced to number crunching and graphs. She admits bafflement when attempting to sort out the scholarly debate over which age demographic constitutes "Generation X" or the existence of a "Generation Y." She finally chooses the simpler option of lumping together those who came of age in the `80s with those who came of age in the `90s, despite differences between the two that could have bolstered her argument. Most of the deregulation, which laid the financial groundwork for Gen X's problems, happened under Ronald Reagan's watch and housing prices really began to balloon in the mid-90s. As a result, the older half of "Generation X" had a brief taste of attractive wages, full health coverage on the boss' dime, and affordable housing, which the younger half (sometimes called "Generation Y") never experienced at all.
In the last two chapters, Draut dives further into territory that's beyond her statistical wonkery, as she attempts to explain why Gen X isn't more politically active in our own best interests. She blames "Reaganization," lack of awareness, and no generational identity.
Sound enough reasons, but let's call them what they are - cynicism, ignorance, and exhaustion. Draut defines "Reaganization" as Gen X's vaguely libertarian ideological inconsistencies. We are the first generation to not only believe the government won't help us, but that they shouldn't even be expected to.
But Draut gives too much weight to the relatively recent anti-government bent of the neo-conservatives and not enough to postmodernism as a broad cultural influence. We didn't learn our cynicism on the knee of Alan Greenspan; we learned it from Madonna and South Park and the cults of fame, materialism, and savvy hopelessness that characterize late-postmodern pop culture.
Such cynicism leads naturally to an ignorance born of disempowerment. If it's not going to make any difference, there's not much point to keeping informed about it. We are not only the first post-War generation to face a standard of living lower than our parents, but the first generation to be significantly less informed and active politically than they were.
Draut says this is because the Boomers were able to rally around the political causes of the 1960s and thus taste their own collective power. But she ignores the obvious reason that encompasses the first three-quarters of her book - Generation X is tired all the time. Trying to make it in a much crueler world, while raising young children and fending off internalized Boomer nagging, has taken its toll. Who has time for the news when bills are going unpaid, the car is on the fritz, and the day care provider isn't working out?
Our parents were the intellectual heirs of George Orwell; we are the intellectual heirs of Ayn Rand. They were the political heirs of the New Deal; we are the political heirs of Watergate. They came of age during an optimism that fairness could be achieved through hard work; we came of age believing that no good deed would go unpunished and that we have no one to blame but ourselves.
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