dropping out, bailing out

In all the talk about crushing student debt, one group of young people tends to be ignored: borrowers who dropped out of college without finishing. Sometimes it’s the accumulating debt itself that makes them panic and quit so they can start earning some money; sometimes it’s other factors. But according to a study by Education Sector, 30 percent of student borrowers at non-profit colleges and universities, and 54 percent of those at for-profit colleges, drop out without ever graduating.

And that’s when the trouble starts — all that debt, and no degree to show for it. Unemployment rates are higher for this subset of young people. And, distressingly, they are more than 4 times more likely than borrowers who graduated to default on their student loans.

The Education Sector report is four months old, but it was the subject of a New York Times editorial just today. Maybe that’s because it’s graduation season and journalists’ fancies turn to thoughts of debt. But it’s good to see attention being paid to the real victims of the college costs, the young people who take out loans hoping for a better life and find themselves falling off the ladder and never being able to catch up. I’m glad to see a little less attention being paid to folks like the young woman from Northwestern paying off her $200,000 loan by accepting online donations from strangers through a Kickstarter-like campaign, and a little more being paid to the trapped and earnest young adults who find themselves strangled by their own bad choices.

Posted in 20-somethings, college, student loans, The New York Times | Leave a comment

the young artist’s life ain’t what it used to be

The juxtaposition of two articles about the creative life in the big city in today’s New York Timesone by the musician and artist David Byrne, the other by his daughter Malu, a jewelry designer — makes clear the difference in what sixty-somethings and twenty-somethings think of as the Good Life. It turns out these differences exist even when the parent and child, in this case the apparently sympatico pair of Byrnes, are looking for many of the same things out of life.

David’s essay is about biking in New York City and in other great cities around the world. It ends with a love song to his time as a young man in Manhattan. Just out of college, he writes, he arrived penniless in New York, where he lived “in glorious squalor” with the other twenty-somethings of his day. (Really? Did the squalor feel glorious at the time?) “We spent most of our full, busy lives in bookshops, bars, tiny apartments and cheap ethnic restaurants,” he writes. “It was exciting and productive, but it wasn’t easy.”

Ultimately, he and his peers realized that life could be less of a “constant struggle” if they redefined success in terms of quality of life rather than material wealth. Fine. I agree with him. And I agree that a place like New York is a wonderful place to feel the creative buzz, to raise a family, live an interesting life, and grow old without feeling useless or bored.

But Malu Byrne isn’t so sure.

In her essay, Malu suggests that the very things that her father values about the vibrant city are the things that make it virtually impossible for struggling artists to live and work here. (And she knows that she herself isn’t struggling nearly as much as her peers are; for now she’s living rent-free with her famous dad, making jewelry in his living room.)

Malu mentions friends in the arts who choose to live in small towns and villages because of lower rents, more relaxing surroundings, and the ability to engage in ventures like opening up galleries of their own. These are familiar arguments, and I understand why a twenty-something fiber arists or jeweler might prefer to set up shop in Hudson, New York than further downriver in Chelsea. But there was one example Malu made that was surprising — that one reason it’s harder to be productive in New York is that there’s too damned much stuff going on. As Malu writes:

Francesca Capone, a writer and textile designer who lives in New York, says she’ll probably get more done during her two-week term as an artist-in-residence in Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Deer Isle, Me., than she has accomplished in two years in her Manhattan studio. “The city is not that conducive to creativity,” Francesca says. “There’s always a friend in a band or an art opening or an interesting party at night, and you have to work so damn hard to pay the rent.”

OK, I get it, the rent is high and you have to work long hours to be able to pay it. But that’s not the heart of Francesca’s problem. I’m surprised to hear that all those band performances and art openings and interesting parties are what keep her from producing anything worthwhile. Because there was a time — though maybe I’m romanticizing the good old days as much as David Byrne might be doing — when such “vibrant” nighttime activities are precisely what led people to wake up the next morning burning with ideas that they wanted to get on the canvas or the page.

I still would rather think, as David Byrne does, that a community of like-minded souls, talking and interacting and making music and art in one another’s company, is a prod toward productivity, not a barrier. And that’s the real problem for twenty-somethings trying to find themselves as artists: even the “glorious squalor” of city life is beyond their financial reach these days. And if they all end up heading to the countryside just to make ends meet, they won’t have a chance to find out if non-stop urban interaction might have been a better, richer kind of creative life.

Posted in 20-somethings, baby boomers, parent-grown child relationship, The New York Times | Leave a comment

freezing eggs that are already past their sell-by date

Lord knows I can empathize with the sentiment that drives the middle-aged parents featured in yesterday’s New York Times story : “So Eager for Grandchildren, They’re Paying the Egg-Freezing Clinic.” I, too, am eager for grandchildren: 58 years old, with two grown daughters, and with a grandbaby lust so startling it can take my breath away.

But would I offer to pay for my daughters to freeze their eggs? Not anymore. Because I think it might already be too late (they’re 32 and 28) to make enough difference to justify the risk and the expense.

In her Times article, reporter Elissa Gootman writes about women between ages 35 and 39 freezing their eggs. This represents the national average age for egg freezing, which is 37.4 — but that’s already way too old. At least that’s what I think. Sam disagrees, and she and I debate the issue today on the Times‘ Motherlode blog.

Broaching the subject of egg freezing — or childbearing decisions in general — is the most delicate of all parent-grown child conversations, one that writer Rachel Lehmann-Haupt calls “the postmodern, adult birds-and-the-bees talk.”

I guess that’s the talk Sam and I are having now. You can read all about it here.

Posted in parent-grown child relationship, 20-somethings, The New York Times, fertility, motherlode blog | Leave a comment

student loans haunt older folks, too

Here’s a surprising way in which Baby Boomers are more like Millennials than people realize — people over 50 carry almost as big a student loan burden as do twenty-somethings.

According to a report on NPR, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York just released a survey finding that SIX MILLION people over 50 are still carrying student loan debt, either because they’re still paying off their own loans (usually because they went back to school at advanced ages) or are paying off loans for which they co-signed on behalf of their children or even grandchildren. This comes to a total of $36 billion in student loans for the over-50 population, many of whom (the report didn’t specify exactly how many) are in default. Apparently debt collectors are knocking on their doors and Social Security checks are being garnished. And just as with younger people, these older folks get no relief by declaring bankruptcy; in general, even for the officially bankrupt, student loans still have to be paid.

This is one area, I’m guessing, in which middle-aged people would just as soon not feel forever young.

Posted in 20-somethings, baby boomers, generational stereotypes, millennials | 1 Comment

millennials to the rescue

Generalizations about twenty-somethings cut both ways: in some reports, Millennials are the least socially-engaged generation ever; in others, they are becoming involved in political action in ways their predecessors never did. I prefer the generalizations with the more positive spin, like the one that appeared last weekend in a New York Times article by Hannah Seligson about a group called Young Invincibles. (You gotta love the pomp and grandiosity of a name like that.)

Sam and I made use of some of the work Young Invincibles did in our research for Twentysomething, so I already had fond feelings about them. Six months ago, they paired up with another nonprofit, Demos, to poll 872 young people divided into two age groups, 18-24 and 25-34. Among the troubling findings of that earlier report from November 2011:

  • Only 53 percent of workers aged 25 to 34 earned more in 2011 than they did four years earlier.
  • Only 47 percent of workers aged 25 to 34 earned more than $30,000 a year.
  • Rent for 18- to 24-year olds took a much bigger bite of pre-tax income in 2009 (32.1 percent) than it had for their parents in 1980 (23.7 percent).
  • The same was true for 25- to 34-year-olds: the proportion whose rent was more than 30 percent of their pre-tax income was much higher in 2009 (41.3 percent) than it had been when their parents were young in 1980 (28 percent).
  • The recession hit younger people harder than others: compared to pre-recession unemployment rates, unemployment rates in 2010 were 4.4 percent higher for workers over 35, 5.4 percent higher for workers 25 to 34, and 7.7 percent higher for workers under 24.
  • A significant proportion of the young people polled  –54 percent of those who had some college, 33 percent with four-year college degrees, 29 percent with graduate degrees — said they were not working in their chosen profession.
  • Money woes had caused 46 percent of the survey respondents to delay purchasing a home, 30 percent to delay starting a family, and 25 percent to delay getting married.

Now, according to the Times, Young Invincibles founder Aaron Smith has started an offshoot called the Campaign for Young America that’s about to embark on a 21-city bus tour. The group plans to host a series of roundtable discussions in which Occupy Wall Street protesters, community leaders, and entrepreneurs get together to discuss solutions to the unemployment crisis for young people. “One thing we are really focused on is trying to better connect colleges and universities to local employers,” Smith told the Times.

How wonderful it would be if the economic malaise of the 2010s is what forces young people into political action, the way the draft forced young people into action in the 1960s. We’ve already seens signs of it with the Occupy Wall Street movement. Maybe groups like Campaign for Young America and the other small efforts outlined in the Times article, like #FixYoungAmerica, are signs that Millennials are on their way to becoming, in a manner of speaking, invincible.

Posted in 20-somethings, generational stereotypes, millennials, The New York Times | Leave a comment

“harder days ahead” — hurrah!

A graduation speech that claims to be an anti-graduation speech was turned into a clever little column in the Wall Street Journal the other day. “10 Things Your Commencement Speaker Won’t Tell You” is how the speech, by University of Chicago professor Charles Wheelan, was billed. (It’s based on a book about to be published by Norton.)

Of the ten things Wheelan told the Dartmouth grads last year, I thought the most important for young people to hear — and the most contrarian, the piece that diverged most radically from typical advice to new graduates — was number 2, “Some of your worst days lie ahead.” Ow.

“If you are going to do anything worthwhile,” Wheeler told his twenty-something audience, “you will face periods of grinding self-doubt and failure. Be prepared to work through them. I’ll spare you my personal details, other than to say that one year after college graduation I had no job, less than $500 in assets, and I was living with an elderly retired couple.”

He added, mostly as a joke I think, that the only difference between when he graduated in 1988 and today is that now no one can afford to retire.

But the serious part of his speech is that people won’t tell twenty-somethings the full truth about what awaits them. There are wonderful days ahead for new college graduates, but dark days, too, and if they don’t realize how common the darkness is they might be undone by it. We owe our kids the truth, including in our graduation speeches.

Posted in 20-somethings, college | Leave a comment

who’s sorry now?

You’d think that twenty-somethings would feel fewer regrets than sixty-somethings, since they haven’t lived as long and haven’t missed as many chances — or if they had missed out on some amazing adventure or incredible relationship, they’re more likely to think that the chance will come around again and they can grab it then.

But a recent study of regret, in which the emotion was simulated by a Let’s Make a Deal-type computer game and subjects were put into functional MRI machines as they played, found that regret is more piercing in the young than in the old. What’s that about?

Most news accounts of the study, like Maia Szalavitz’s in Time magazine, suggest that old people have learned to tamp down their bittersweet feelings of regret, since there’s not much they can do about it anyway. Young people, goes this interpretation, haven’t learned this yet — nor have older people who are depressed. I get that last part; depression is practically defined by regret, by the continual loop of “what if” that plays in a depressed person’s head, uselessly, hauntingly, with no good outcome at the end, with only more of those useless, haunting “what if”s.

This view was supported by the brain imaging that went along with the regretful feelings. Young people, when they discovered that they had lost a lot of money because of their decision to stop opening boxes (“I’ll just stick with this door, Monty”), showed decreased activity in the ventral striatum, a brain region that tends to light up when people feel rewarded. But old people making the same discovery showed no change in the ventral striatum, and increased activity in the control region of the brain, the anterior cingulate, suggesting that they were actually tamping down their rueful feelings. As the investigators put it in their paper in Science, “Disengagement from regret experiences at a point of life where the opportunities to undo regrettable behavior are limited may be a protective strategy to maintain emotional well-being.”

But I wonder if something else is going on, a kind of overall mitigation of intense emotion that tends to happen with age. I don’t get the hammering in the chest I used to when about to interview a new source for an article; my husband, as a twenty-something college professor, would hear his own jaw squeaking when he would start a lecture, but that nervousness hasn’t happened to him in years. These are good things, but they also reflect something that’s kind of too bad,  the quietude of middle age, when emotions settle down to little more than a background hum. And the loss of those high emotions — well, from the vantage point of the mellow old age of 58, that is what strikes me as something to regret.

Posted in 20-somethings, aging | 2 Comments