The grad trap

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 Generation Debt: Why Now is the Worst Time to be Young
Youâe(TM)re not a slacker âe" it's the system

Another season of degrees handed out, caps tossed in the air and photos taken with proud parents and teary-eyed friends.

Soon, many of these happy grads will be hearing from the banks through which they financed their dreams regarding the reality of their repayment schedule. A recent Macleanâe(TM)s reported that the average student in hawk owes more than $20,000 and that in this past academic year undergrads paid an average of $4,214 in tuition. Meet the latest members of Generation Debt, the new catchphrase for those under 35 who canâe(TM)t get out of the red.

In Generation Debt: Why Now Is a Terrible Time to Be Young, Anya Kamenetz argues that young people are not âe" contrary to popular opinion âe" all immature slackers with an over-developed sense of entitlement. Rather, the ever-rising cost of education, changes in the work world (where have all the great-paying, full-time jobs with fabulous benefits gone?), and, yes, some unrealistic expectations, mean itâe(TM)s hard to get ahead. These economic realities, she reasons, have larger implications, influencing whether or not we marry, have health insurance or own a home.

The book emerged from Kamenetzâe(TM)s Pulitzer-Prize-nominated series in The Village Voice and, while itâe(TM)s an American book, the broader trend sheâe(TM)s identified certainly applies without too much translation to Canada. (My own student debt story and those of most of the grads I know sadly confirm the similarities.)

To support her case, Kamenetz quotes an array of sources such as the financial guru Suze Orman, and Laurence Kotlikoff, an economics professor at Boston University and co-author of The Coming Generational Storm. Kamenetz also presents some scary stats. About a quarter of American students are paying for tuition with a credit card. The annual volume of U.S. federal student loans tripled between 1995 and 2005. Young people who get a job right out of high school are the most likely to work for minimum wage; according to the U.S. Census, the poverty rate is highest among 18 to 24 year olds. Overall, annual earnings for those between 25 and 34 went down by almost 20 per cent in constant dollars between 1971 and 2002. Likewise, the Canadian Federation of Students points out that tuition fees have more than doubled in Canada since 1993; the debt load of earning a four-year degree has tripled.

Kamenetz mixes these kinds of hard facts with the stories of people such as âeoeJennieâe who makes $1,000 a month as a day care worker and has no health insurance. Thereâe(TM)s no way she can pay for the dental care she needs. A tooth in the back of her mouth is nearly worn away because it doesnâe(TM)t have a cap and thereâe(TM)s a black cavity in one of her front teeth.

Perhaps in deference to the weighty issues described in Generation Debt, Kamenetzâe(TM)s writing style is straightforward and her tone Earnest âe" âeoeOkay, so weâe(TM)re ready to start a movement. How about more public investment in young people, supporting education, job training, entrepreneurship, and child rearing, for a startâe is about as saucy as she gets.

As for solutions to this problem, her advice ranges from the not-very- doable (âeoeA growing âe~unschoolingâe(TM) movement offers a lucky few children and teenagers âe" from mostly educated, middle-class families âe" the opportunity to escape the regimentation of our often floundering public schools and discover what they really loveâe ) to the ultra-simplistic (âeoeTrue independence starts with living within your meansâe ).

Still, the book is a well-researched account of what the realities of life are for the (credit) card-carrying members of Generation Debt and a worthy starting point for a discussion about young people, education and work âe" something Canadians should invest a little more thought in.âe"Jennifer Oâe(TM)Connor

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