Anya Kamenetz is a writer and journalist who has spent her career looking at issues facing our generation. Her first book, Generation Debt came out in 2006 and was the first in-depth look at Millennials kilamanjaro-esque mountains of debt. And in case you didn’t know, the issue has gotten, like, super worse in the intervening years. Since then, Anya has been writing about the future of higher education, in her book DIY U, and advocating for independent institutions which don’t saddle young people with loans they’ll never be able to pay back. Her latest project is The Edupunks’ Guide, a free ebook that came out last year with support from the Gates Foundation, and is being updated now.
Generation Debt, about the staggering amount of debt young people were taking on, as well as their bleak economic prospects, was published in ’06, before the economic crisis. Since then, are young people getting any more responsible, or is it just as bleak?
Well, it was actually less about people being irresponsible and more about banks being irresponsible, as we’ve learned. In the past few years, the good news is that credit card debt has been going down and there’s a lot more awareness of the need for good financial knowledge and habits. The bad news is that student loans are worse than ever and obviously the job market for young people is a lot worse too.
The media narrative about Generation Y always seems to be, “This generation is royally fucked,( with small pockets of “look at these cool, young entrepreneurs doing _______ out in Brooklyn”. How do you personally feel about this generation’s economic prospects? Cautiously pessimistic? Something else?
Look, our entire economic system is unsustainable. It’s grossly unequal and we’re wrecking the planet. That said, I look around and see lots of young people refocusing on doing work that is meaningful and positive instead of chasing a paycheck, and I think ultimately if you do that your prospects are brighter.
DIY U definitely seemed to be more about empowerment and how people can take control of their education, individualistically, outside of the system. Outside of education, do you think young people need to take a more individual approach to other aspects of their lives, like careers, home-making, relationships, etc..?
Not necessarily more individualistic but more independent of large institutions, yes. DIY was kind of a misnomer because the point is not that you do it all by yourself. It’s about groups of people creating for themselves what they need without relying on some outside force to do it for you.
You’re books and journalism have focused a lot on young people, and were really about people your age. As you get older, do you think you’ll still focus on young people in your work, or that you’ll age out of it and focus elsewhere?
Hmm, that’s a really interesting question! I think subtly with DIY U my focus already shifted a bit from people in a generational category–Millennials to people in an activity or interest category–learners, many of whom are in their 20s, 30s, and beyond. At the broadest level I’m interested in telling stories about change in the world, and young people are one group who experiences and create a lot of change.
Has becoming a mother, a super grown up thing to do, affected what you’re interested in writing about?
It’s a bit soon to tell since my daughter’s only 6 months old, but it’s certainly an amazing opportunity to watch learning in action.
When young people tell you they want to become journalists, what’s your go-to piece of advice?
Think really broadly about the job–we can’t all be New Yorker staff writers so it’s good if you can work with the web, video, audio, and are prepared to be entrepreneurial.
I’m always interested in books about becoming a grownup, be they fiction, journalism, cultural commentary or self-help. Since that’s been a focus of your work, I wonder if there have been any books about growing up which had/have a influence on you?
Joan Didion’s The White Album is hugely influential, not only for her amazing style, but I think what she’s capturing is a time when what it meant to be a grown-up was really changing. She was a 30 year old in the room with all these ’60s hippies were fetishizing and celebrating youth, and she was skeptical about it but also saw the beauty of it.
Finally, what are you working on next?
I’m traveling to Nicaragua in a couple of weeks for a Fast Company story on One Laptop Per Child five years on, curating a TEDx conference on the future of higher education in November at George Mason U, and I have a book proposal on the back burner.