Thursday, March 09, 2006

To Be in Debt or Not To Be

Anya Kamenetz's Generation Debt: Why Now is a Terrible Time to be Young gets the negative treatment in Slate. Actually, the writer also pans another book that similarly complains about how hard it is for recent college graduates to simultaneously acquire wealth and maintain a bohemian lifestyle. But Kamenetz's book bears the brunt of the criticism:
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 20's 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.
He continues with this difficult to ignore piece of bravado.
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.

Truthfully, I have yet to read Kamenetz's book but I don't plan on it (the title is such a downer). My impression of this book (and the other mentioned in the article) is that they imply that debt is an unavoidable outcome of a certain lifestyle and entering the workforce with a set of unrealistic expectations. There is no agency in that equation. I have always believed that going into debt is a personal choice and not an economic inevitability. We all make decisions about how we make and spend our money and whether it be paying off credit cards or opting to carry a balance, there is always a choice in the matter, especially when you are a healthy, well-educated, socially mobile member of society. They don't call me the "coupon queen" for nothing.

At the other end of the spectrum, there's always the anarchist lifestyle. Who knew supermarket dumpsters held such treasures?

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