TOPICS > Science

Generation Next Project Probes Views, Lives of America’s Young People

January 12, 2007 at 4:33 PM EDT

JUDY WOODRUFF, NewsHour Special Correspondent: Raised by his mother and grandfather, Chaz grew up in this tough Columbus neighborhood, staying clear of trouble while many of his friends did not. Now 20 years old, he tried college a couple of times but never finished.

CHAZ HILLMON, Community Center Worker: And since I needed a job to pretty much help run the household, I pretty much had to put school on hold for a while. But since working at Community House, they are able to pay for me to go back to school, as long as I go for my early childhood development degree.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Chaz loves his work at the community center, but still struggles to get by.

CHAZ HILLMON: I have college loans from when I went to OSU. I have credit card bills. I have cell phone bills. I’m about to have the utilities of my house put in my name.

There’s just so much financial burden, it’s stressful, that I’m trying to balance the needs and my wants. And I’m trying to take care of the bills, but also trying to make sure that I have enough money where I can get groceries and have enough money to maintain my car, make sure that it’s up and running, make sure I have gas in it. It’s just hard to just think about it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Not long ago, people with just a high school diploma or even without one could count on a well-paying, usually blue-collar job, most protected by labor unions with benefits and pensions. Not anymore.

Although the economy has continued to grow, many new jobs today are in the low-paying service sector, frequently with no benefits at all. This lack of opportunity for those with less education is a grim reality for this generation, one that only promises to grow worse, especially in the face of expanding global competition.

Youth face debt, job challenges

JUDY WOODRUFF: The urban environment of Manhattan's Lower East Side, where Anya Kamenetz now lives, stands in sharp contrast to Baton Rouge and New Orleans, Louisiana, where she grew up.

ANYA KAMENETZ, Author, "Generation Debt": We've been living here for about a year-and-a-half. And we picked the neighborhood because people said it was the last bargain downtown.

JUDY WOODRUFF: With the help of scholarships and the generosity of her grandparents, Anya graduated from Yale without any student debt of her own. An expert on the topic since writing "Generation Debt," Anya first reported on her generation's finances as a freelance writer for a series in the Village Voice newspaper.

ANYA KAMENETZ: Immediately, I discovered that, you know, this was the story of my friends, this was the story of people that I met, what was happening to young people around the country was part of a bigger pattern.

Student loan debts, the credit card debt, the changes in the job market, the fact that the old middle-class bargain was no longer working the way it was supposed to work for people my age.

Statistics show that people these days in their 20s are holding about 10 jobs in their first 10 or 12 years in the workforce. And so with all of that leaping around, it becomes a lot harder to pursue, you know, a simple kind of plan, a one-point plan or a five-point plan.

Defining a generation

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is your interest in the entire generation or is it principally in those who are students, who are continuing their education in college?

ANYA KAMENETZ: No, my interest is absolutely in the entire generation. You know, you have about half of all students who are going to college, getting some experience, but only less than a third come out with a degree.

And so there's this large gray area of people, dropouts. And that is an incredibly interesting group to me, because they're people that took that chance, made that investment, and for some reason or another, it didn't come through. And that's who I think we really need to be focusing on right now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you think -- or do you think there's something particularly remarkable about your generation?

ANYA KAMENETZ: You know, generations are defined in hindsight, and they're defined by history. And it's going to be history that's going to write the book on this generation.

I think that the history that's going to be written about my generation is going to talk about how we responded to unbelievable challenges, challenges like no other generation for at least a century, I think.

I mean, when you're talking about America's place in the world, when you're talking about global warming, when you're talking about just dealing with inequality, within the country and within the world, the question is going to be, how did young people respond? How did my generation stand up and respond to those? And I think that that has yet to be written.