Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Generation 'my monthly loan payments will be what!?!?'

I started this blog because I didn't see a lot of personal-finance writing out there aimed at twentysomethings, people who are more worried about paying off student loan and credit card debt than about diversifying their stock portfolios. One book I keep running into is Generation Debt: Why Now Is a Terrible Time to Be Young, by Village Voice columnist Anya Kamenetz. Salon has an interview with her up today.

I'll have to check out the book. It's an issue I have mixed feelings on. I have plenty of friends who have been caught in the kind of economic turmoil Kamenetz describes, of low-wage, no-benefits jobs and little chance to grab hold of any kind of corporate ladder. On the other hand, I also know plenty of people like me, who moved from college into fairly stable corporate jobs, get treated decently, and have never been laid off. (I also worked at a dot-com, a company with poor management and a dicey future. I saw the writing on the wall and left before the layoffs started.) And then there's the next level up, of my college companions who went into i-banking or high-end consulting and landed starting salaries that would make anyone's head spin.

It's easy to tut-tut about "mistakes" people make. The one thing I did in college that locked me in for a fairly stable future was intern like crazy. I knew I wanted to go into journalism; I knew journalism jobs turn on clips and experience; I knew those would matter more for my future career than grades or other academic credentials. That made it much easier for me to work in a field where jobs can be hard to come by. (Though not so hard as advertised, in my view, if you're willing to work in trade or other niche areas of the media world.) I still believe strongly that anyone with the foresight to do some planning and the willingness to consider a range of jobs can come out of college with bright career prospects, in nearly any field, no matter how competitive. I also think my future would have been a lot trickier if I hadn't been lucky enough to know off the bat what field I wanted to go into.

I'll agree, though, that there are some distinctive challenges facing our generation, starting with rising college costs and too-easily-available credit. Yes, personal responsibility means it's your own damn fault if you sign on the dotted line for money you can't immediately repay, but I would also like to see strong curbs on how heavily credit card lenders can push cards with sky-high limits on those with paltry paychecks.

College costs are the more insidious problem, because the numbers involved are so scarily high. It's utterly absurd for liberal-arts colleges to be charging annual tuitions higher than what their average graduates will be making in post-graduation starting salaries. Again, yes, there's a personal responsibility angle, and yes, people can choose to go to public and other lower-cost institutions, but even those are falling prey to tuition creep. I don't know what the answer is on that front. I'm just very grateful I don't have kids' college tuition's to worry about.

I honestly don't know if we have it worse than our parents. My sense is that we have less security but more flexibility. That's a great trade for those who make good choices and catch lucky breaks, and a bad one for those whose missteps or misfortunes take them to the edge of the cliff.