Interview contributed by Cody McKibben.
The second expert panelist for our women & money series is Anya Kamenetz, a respectable twentysomething author, columnist, and blogger from Manhattan. The daughter of a poet and a novelist, she graduated from Yale University in 2002. She has worked with the New York Times, the Washington Post, Salon, Slate, the Village Voice, and more, and in 2006 she released her first book, Generation Debt: How Our Future Was Sold Out for Student Loans, Bad Jobs, No Benefits, and Tax Cuts for Rich Geezers — And How to Fight Back. She talks with us today about being a freelance writer and about young people and money.
You were nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for the series “Generation Debt: The New Economics of Being Young” in 2004. What were your main findings?
The series ran in 2004; I also did a Generation Debt column for the Village Voice for all of 2005.
Student loans and student credit cards have multiplied very fast and under the radar so that large amounts of debt are now a rite of passage for a majority of young people. Two thirds of college graduates borrow loans to get through college, up from less than half as recently as 1993, and they graduate with an average of $20,000 in loans and almost $3000 in credit card debt. Combine that with a changing job market that offers fewer benefits, and a higher cost of living, especially housing, in many metropolises and you have a lot of middle-class, educated young people falling behind, to say nothing of the fate of McJob Nation; the two out of three kids with no college degree have seriously fallen behind in income and stability.
Since graduating in 2002 you’ve freelanced as a writer and editor for several publications. Ramit hosts lots of readers who want to be professional writers, but you seem to have done it successfully. What are some recommendations you can make for aspiring professional writers?
Think hard about it. I don’t know many “professional writers” as opposed to people who happen to be lucky enough to occasionally get paid to write. Boyce Rensberger, head of the Knight Science Journalism Fellowships at MIT, told the New York Times on June 10: ”I feel a little queasy encouraging young people into journalism. It’s such a precarious industry right now.”
I think if you want to write for a living you need to be pretty hardcore about your craft and your subject area or field. You can build up knowledge of your field by working a related job (in politics, the law, nonprofits, fashion, etc.) and you can build up your craft by writing, writing, writing, and being in a writers’ group, and taking classes or workshops, and working in media-related fields. I freelanced as a writer’s assistant, fact-checker, and copy editor before I started writing full time. If I were starting out now I would definitely blog too.
Good tip! *wink* And how did the Generation Debt column evolve into a book? What do you bring to this research on youth and personal finance that others don’t?
I think it’s just a case of being at the right place at the right time. My articles were clearly part of a larger wave and as a young person myself (I was 23 when I sold the book) I guess my agent and editor felt I brought a unique immediacy to the issue. Nowadays, three years later, I’ve built up a lot more credibility by knowing my subject pretty well and lecturing, writing, and commenting about it in various media.
iwillteachyoutoberich.com readers are young, so they understand the challenges of being young and dealing with money. Who did you write this book for, and what challenges have you faced in getting your audience to pay attention?
I wrote the book for a dual audience of young adults and their parents. Parents were occasionally skeptical and young people don’t really buy a lot of books! But I’ve gotten great feedback from people of all ages who felt like they related to the book’s message. I’ve tried hard to emphasize that endowing young people with the resources they need to succeed will ultimately benefit everyone in America.
So you focus on the huge rate of student loans and credit card debt among twentysomethings…do you think women in this age bracket tend to handle these challenges differently than males?
Young women are still earning less than young men, even recent college graduates. They are more likely to be living paycheck to paycheck and sometimes less confident about investing. But when they do start to take finances seriously they are often more tenacious and better decisionmakers, better at tracking expenses and sticking to a budget.
Yes, I remember some 2005 research from Merrill Lynch about how women make fewer investment mistakes! Now regarding the credit companies and lending institutions, there are always raging debates about “taking personal responsibility” vs. “the finance companies are out to get young people, who don’t stand a chance.” Where do you stand?
The positive, personal side of my message is that you always have the power to take better control of your finances. Development studies have shown that even people who live on a dollar a day somehow manage to save to celebrate weddings and festivals. If it’s important to you, you can find a way.
The political action side of my message is that we have to reform the credit and student loan industries. Responsibility goes both ways — it is also the responsibility of lenders to provide complete, non-deceptive information to borrowers and to try to ensure to the best of their ability that they don’t lend more money than people will be able to pay back. I believe there is starting to be a shift in awareness of this issue and reforms are coming.
I hope so! I wish you the best in your political action. Anything else you’d like to share about your work?
Thanks for joining us, Anya! It was a pleasure learning about your freelancing career and hearing about your research on college students and debt. For those of you who are interested, be sure to grab Anya’s book Generation Debt and check for her Yahoo! Finance column starting next month!
Cody McKibben is a student, blogger, designer, instigator and weekend entrepreneur. He enjoys interviewing entrepreneurs and other experts and blogs regularly at THRILLINGheroics.com and codymckibben.com.