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Generation Debt
by Carmen Wong

Why Do We Have So Much Debt, Anyway?

The Costs of Trying to Make It

In order to master your enemy, it’s best to get familiar with its MO.

So before helping you tackle, manage, and come out on top of the eight-hundred-pound gorilla of your personal money situation, let me offer you a quick tour of the confluence of events that have gotten many of us stuck in this tight financial spot in the first place.

Worst-case scenario, the following section will make you look supersavvy at your next cocktail party. Best-case scenario, it will piss you off, make you wise, and get you moving.


Notice how there is less and less mention these days of “upper class” or “lower class”? How marketers and advertisers (and politicians) now segment Americans with phrases such as hippie boomers, soccer moms, NASCAR dads, tweeners, bobos,* and urban singles?

Lifestyle has replaced the old-fashioned concept of social class. The very positive power of lifestyle as the standard of social segmentation is that lifestyles can be built by choice, not by birth. And the rest of the world is rapidly following suit. (Hooray for that!)

But here’s the kicker: For most Americans, education is the key to lifestyle. And as we all know only too painfully well, education costs.

The shiny side of this penny—and what we can pretty much deduce on our own—was confirmed recently by the U.S. Department of Labor in its report Working in the 21st Century: College graduates age twenty-five and over earn nearly twice as much as workers who stopped their education with a high school diploma.

Many folks got that notice. The Census Bureau reported in June 2004 that Americans are more educated than ever before, with 85 percent of all adults twenty-five and older completing high school that year and 27 percent having a bachelor’s degree in 2003—a historic high.

For comparison, in 1975, 18 percent of men and 11 percent of women had a college degree. In 2000, those numbers rose to 28 percent of men and 24 percent of women. Nice catch-up job, ladies and gentlemen.

Then again, I still (unfortunately) hear ranting justifications like “College is nothing more than a piece of paper.” Or another favorite, “I’ll learn on my own and start my own business—Bill Gates didn’t finish college!” Well, I see men wearing leather sandals, too, but that don’t make them Jesus. I digress.

Straight entrepreneurship is a challenging, potentially lucrative, but extremely risky way to go. If you can do it without getting a college degree, more power to you, all the luck in the world. However, if you are planning on joining the workforce and getting a good j-o-b, that “piece of paper” is your key. Why? Because as those of you who have completed college, are in college, or have had any college know, to succeed in undergraduate and especially graduate school, it takes discipline, motivation, dedication, book learnin’, and a major dose of experimentation and growing up, not to mention a big chunk out of your and your parents’ wallet. So an employer is much more likely to take you (college-educated person) seriously as a job candidate than someone who chose a different path.

Another reason a college education has become de rigueur in the workplace is the shifting focus of the economy over the last several decades.

There are many of us who can say that we are either the first generation in our families to get a higher education, or that our parents were the first to go to college. Alongside the parental (that’d be me) or recent immigration factor, after the 1950s a fundamental shift in the economy and the job market took place. (Before then, if you could imagine, a high school diploma was all you needed to land yourself a good white-collar job—with a pension, no less!) The glory days of behemoth industry and manufacturing are over. Smarty-pants are in. Popular writer-economist Peter Drucker sums this up by saying we’ve shifted into a “knowledge economy.” The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS, a division of the U.S. Department of Labor) more generically calls this a “new economy.” In 2001, the BLS reported that the importance of a college education in this “new economy” is made salient by the fact that despite a shrinking college population, there has been a tremendous increase in college enrollments.

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