Honest Review – Strapped: Why America’s 20- and 30-Somethings Can’t Get Ahead

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Drowning in student loans? Cant afford to get married, buy a home, have children? Up to your ears in credit card debt? At last, a book for the under-35 generation that explains why its not their fault, and what can be done about it. Strapped offers a groundbreaking look at the new obstacle course facing young adults. Getting ahead, argues commentator and policy maven Tamara Draut, is getting harder. A college degree is the new high school diplomaand costs a fortune to obtain. Good jobs are scarcer thanks to stagnant wages and disappearing benefits. And, the cost of everythingstarter homes, health coverage, child carekeeps going up. Witty and wise, Strapped brims with ideas for fashioning a new kind of America in which every young person can go to college, buy a home, and start a family. The future starts here.


Review:

While Ms. Draut’s book has a great deal to recommend it, she failed to convince me of her main premise, i.e. that young college educated adults today are being unreasonably economically oppressed through little fault of their own. Her book is well researched and succinctly written. She was honest enough to admit to some faults of her own 30-something generation, mainly their political apathy and poor state of being informed of current issues. I will even agree that it isn’t exactly easy for young adults nowadays to establish themselves economically. The mistake, however, is in concluding that it’s inordinately more difficult than in other eras when all factors are averaged together.

Ms. Draut lacks an accurate sense of how people born before 1970 actually lived. Establishing oneself in adulthood has never been a walk through the park. The difference is that in the past nobody expected it to be easy. Most adults in the 1950’s ate out in restaurants far less frequently. Men in those times were far more likely to be shade tree mechanics on weekends doing their own repairs to the aging family car. Parents back then didn’t buy their children anywhere near as many toys. Not nearly as many teens had a car given to them when they turned 16, and more often if they did it was an old beater. Talk to people of that generation if you’re not of that age yourself, and it soon becomes clear: in the past, people were more resourceful and lived more modestly. To her credit, in some passages Ms. Draut implies some concession to the fact that young people today live at a relatively high level of consumption. But she thinks it’s inconsequential in the larger scheme. I beg to differ. Even modest expenditures add up faster than most people think.

I’ve often heard people argue that many young people do in fact appear to have a strong work ethic. As evidence, they will point out that there are teen-agers and college students working in fast food joints or stores in malls 30 to 35 hours a week while going to school full time. True enough, but it’s rarely for survival. Those same young people are driving cars that are nicer relative to the era than many middle-aged adults owned in the 1950’s, and they have to make the payments. Or they’re working to pay higher than necessary rent because they refuse to live in a bargain apartment. They’re less likely to accept functional hand-me-down clothes, or patch together an old but functioning jalopy as their first car. They want quality material stuff and they may be willing to work long hours at the store in the mall in order to have it. But they’re far less likely to be thrifty and resourceful and repair something before replacing it. As I see it, you can find young people with a good work ethic, but you’ll find very few who have much of a sacrifice ethic.

I think these same tendencies carry over into their adult lives. They simply have an inflated idea of what a minimally acceptable standard of living is.

In what may be the most glaring omission in this book, Ms. Draut made no mention of the high price people pay for weddings nowadays. The average price of a wedding today is somewhere in the tens of thousands, and it logically follows that many if not most of those would be for young adults. She omits any mention of this (which may not be accidental) yet only serves to call attention to it by mentioning traveling to weddings of friends as a burdensome but well justified expense! Bad rhetorical call there, Ms. Draut.

The book discusses some solutions in the last chapter, most of them with some merit in my opinion. I particularly liked her idea of an apprenticeship path for young people to enter skilled professions, as an alternative to the standard path of borrowing large sums of money for college.

Some of her solutions were good as far as they go, but mostly they involved public policy as the answer. That has its place, but I wish she had discussed the possibility of behavioral and cultural changes as well. The recent generations have had it drilled into their heads that the only path to a secure existence is to go the standard route of college followed by relocating to some major urban area since that’s where the professional track jobs are. So they start in the world with high college debt, high housing cost, and the continual expense of frequent long distance travel to visit family. These young people enter adult life so top-heavy. To her credit, Ms. Draut does allude to this, but she fails to think outside the box of the college/professional path and ponder any radical alternatives.

What about the possibility of taking a lower-investment sort of career path? What about going to vocational school to become a carpenter or an electrician? It’s not such a bad life. Young adults might be able to stay closer to their original family homes, where often housing is cheaper and family help is more available. Regarding child care, they might be able to do what young parents had always done for generations before: get their young nieces and nephews or retired parents or grandparent to occasionally watch the children. What about returning to a lifestyle in which not every activity is a commercial transaction with strangers?

So my final verdict is that there’s some good information here, some good discussion of economic problems, and some good suggestions for solutions. But ultimately Ms. Draut failed to accurately identify the real problem, which is a lack of resourcefulness and lack of individual accountability. Consequently her vision for change was sadly limited.

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