Several times, upon picking up the Village Voice, I vaguely noticed a recurring series of columns under the banner "Generation Debt". I had a pretty good sense that these columns were little more than woe-is-me whinings of a frustrated twentysomething, replete with complaints about credit-cards, the high cost of college, the lack of cool jobs, and how humiliating it is to live at home. But I also had the sense that "Generation Debt" was not so much a demographic, but a voluntary culture. Those people that I knew who went into areas like law, chemistry, business, computer engineering, biology etc. weren't slumming around at low-paid restaurant jobs, pining for a chance to be a barista at the local hipster hot spot. On the other hand my friends who wanted to be musicians, filmmakers and playwrights (which I myself have pursued), were having a harder go of it. There just aren't high-paying jobs in those areas for people right out of college and there never will be -- that's not a reflection, though, of the economic times.
But there was one aspect of the "Generation Debt" which I totally missed. I expected the author to be among the poor souls that were profiled. Far from it. As I learned just today, the essays were penned by the privileged and wildly successful Anya Kamenetz. Here's her bio:
Anya Kamenetz grew up in Baton Rouge and New Orleans, Louisiana. Her father, Rodger Kamenetz, is a poet and the author of The Jew in the Lotus; her mother, Moira Crone, is a novelist. Since graduating from Yale University in 2002, Anya has lived in Manhattan and freelanced as a fact-checker, copy editor, research assistant, and writer.
She has written for The New York Times, the Washington Post, New York Magazine, Salon, Slate, The Nation, and the Village Voice. In 2004, the Voice nominated her for a Pulitzer Prize in feature writing for her work on the series “Generation Debt: The New Economics of Being Young.” In January 2005, the series became a biweekly column. Reporting assignments have taken her to the Palestinian territories, post-Katrina Louisiana, and the streets of New York City, during protests of the 2004 Republican National Convention, where she barely evaded capture by plastic netting. Generation Debt: Why Now is a Terrible Time to be Young (Riverhead Books, 2006) is her first book.
But the problem isn't that she's a Yale-educated daughter of two novelists, with a good career, talking about how bad the youth have it. That's fine and well, and frankly such character charges are always lame. The problem is that her writing and her viewpoints are awful, and one gets the distinct impression that it's precisely because of her background that she so badly misses the mark when talking about her own generation. The fact that so many Village Voice (and New York Times, and New York magazine) readers are likely to look to Kamenetz' writing to get a sense of where twentysomethings are only makes it worse
The article that actually caught my attention was from Tuesday's New York Times, in which she bizarrely rants against the evils of the internship. The article was found after reading Will Wilkinson's scathing critique which starts with the awesome line, "Anya Kamenetz’s mind is an ideological funhouse mirror designed to baffle and enrage the economically literate." Indeed. Shall we?
Actually, it's hard to know where to begin:
Although it's not being offered this year, the A.F.L.-C.I.O.'s Union Summer internship program, which provides a small stipend, has shaped thousands of college-educated career organizers. And yet interestingly, the percentage of young workers who hold an actual union card is less than 5 percent, compared with an overall national private-sector union rate of 12.5 percent. How are twentysomethings ever going to win back health benefits and pension plans when they learn to be grateful to work for nothing?
So an internship doesn't teach you everything you need to know about coping in today's working world. What effect does it have on the economy as a whole?
The Bureau of Labor Statistics does not identify interns or track the economic impact of unpaid internships. But we can do a quick-and-dirty calculation: according to Princeton Review's "Internship Bible," there were 100,000 internship positions in 2005. Let's assume that out of those, 50,000 unpaid interns are employed full time for 12 weeks each summer at an average minimum wage of $5.15 an hour. That's a nearly $124 million yearly contribution to the welfare of corporate America.
Said assaults on logic come fast and furious. Somehow, in her world, there's a relationship between an internship spot at a labor union and the fact that there aren't many young people who are actually in unionized careers. Please leave a comment if that makes sense to you. Then she makes up some data about the "yearly contribution to the welfare of corporate America", which so far as I can tell is an entirely meaningless phrase. What she's crafted is a crude back-of-the-envelope guess for how much interns make in a year. So we're left wondering what that means. I'll spare you any more, though elsewhere she compares interns to illegal immigrants, which means she's probably been watching too much Lou Dobbs. She also claims that by working for free, workers convince themselves that they love their jobs.
In Kamenetz's book, there are plenty of poor, self-pitying upper-middle-class types, disappointed that they can't have exactly what they want when they want it. Sure, it's tough to live well as a violinist or a grad student in New York today; but the same thing held 20 years ago, and 40 years ago. To improve their lot, twentysomethings have to do the same things their parents should be doing: saving more, spending less, building skills that are marketable, and aligning aspirations with abilities. It's tough to have a bourgeois life at 26.
Kamenetz also makes cavalier statements about economics and career development. "The job market sucks," she proclaims. It may not be as good as it was in the 1990s, but suck is a pretty strong term. She complains that a $700 personal computer, a necessity for any young person, is expensive. Huh? Computing is incredibly cheap. The first PC I bought, that crappy, tiny Mac, cost $2,000 in 1990 dollars.
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 20s 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.
Look. It's tough coming out of Ivy League schools to New York and making your way in the world. The notion that you can be—and have to be—the author of your own destiny is both terrifying and exhilarating. And for those without marketable skills, who lack social and intellectual capital, the odds are indeed stacked against them. 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.
Look, it's one thing to be privileged; I feel that I am, as are many of my friends. And it's fine to be wrong, I've been wrong on too many issues to count. But for people to accept that someone like Anya Kamenetz speaks for her generation, when it's obvious that her life bears little resemblance to the cherry picked anecdotes and misleading statistics in her writing, is just baffling.
At the risk of of sounding like Holden Caulfield, Kamenetz is the worst kind of phony. It's common that in wealthy societies privileged persons seek to identify with and give voice to an oppressed class. This can be a good thing when such a class actually exists. But Kamenetz goes a step further. She brilliantly created a new oppressed class and made a lucrative career out of being its spokesperson. Surely it will be a new model for similarly ambitious people for years to come.