Upon meeting the blonde and bubbly Anya Kamenetz ’02, one might not suspect that this young Manhattanite has already been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
Kamenetz, who released her first book, “Generation Debt: Why Now is a Terrible Time to Be Young,” earlier this month, has since seen her name in a smattering of acclaimed publications throughout the nation. The book, which was based on a column in The Village Voice, explores the new economic and financial challenges faced by emerging generations.
Kamenetz said the word “debt,” in a literal sense, refers to such factors as enormous student loans and credit card payments, which were not possible for young people to incur on their own before the 1980s.
“I want students to realize that this is a time of change,” she said.
Village Voice Executive Editor Laura Conaway conceived “Generation Debt” when it was still in column form. She said she wanted the column written because she did not believe older people today understand that the lives of today’s youth are very different and that in a world of rising expenses, the debt accumulated early in life is often a determining factor in later decisions.
“Your lives are being dictated by the choices you’ve made as to how to fund an education,” Conaway said. “[No one has] documented what is going on because money issues belong to people that are much worse off.”
Kamenetz spent months doing research for the book, and said she spoke with experts in economics, history, education, labor markets and health care as well as about 100 people from all over the country about their financial situations. Meeting and interviewing these people was one of the best parts of writing the book, she said. Kamenetz, who is one of the youngest columnists in the Voice’s history, received a Pulitzer Prize nomination for her reporting on the generation debt.
The daughter of two authors, Kamenetz grew up in Baton Rouge and New Orleans, La., and applied to Yale early decision because, she said, she was sure she wanted to attend the school right away. She majored in literature and honed her journalistic skills by writing for The New Journal, serving as editor-in-chief her senior year. After graduating, Kamenetz moved to Manhattan and freelanced as a writer, copy editor, research assistant and fact checker. She has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, New York Magazine, Salon, Slate and The Nation, in addition to the Voice.
During her time writing and editing for The New Journal, Kamenetz worked closely with English professor Fred Strebeigh, who sat on the Journal’s Board of Directors. Strebeigh said he could see Kamenetz’s intellectual and journalistic promise even as an undergraduate, adding that he had witnessed few Yalies so quickly and efficiently identify and tackle a topic and open a new thread of discussion about it. He said he was particularly impressed by a breakfast Kamenetz organized for students featuring Susan Orlean, a writer for The New Yorker.
“The dialogue was at the level of professional writers,” Strebeigh said. “Anya was someone who, very quickly and in all the best ways, was on a perfect trajectory for a successful professional career.”
Kamenetz spoke at a Davenport College Master’s Tea last week and said the most exciting part of her success is being back at Yale and speaking to current students, including her sister, Kezia Kamenetz ’09, who introduced her.
One of the main points Kamenetz reiterated to the students at the tea was that not only do students need to be aware of student debt, but they also need to work to eradicate the problem. Young Americans have a tendency to focus on global and national issues and forget about ones involving themselves, she said. She hopes her book will lead students to understand pressing issues of debt and will motivate greater student activism in dealing with the issue.
“[This generation] is coming of age at a unique transition in American history,” she said. “We can’t look forward to easy prosperity and growth anymore.”
Hugh Baran ’09, who attended the tea, said he thinks the information Kamenetz presented in her book is powerful. At Yale, he said, it is sometimes hard to fathom the number of students who go to college and do not graduate and the numbers that cannot afford to go at all. He said he was particularly struck by the extent to which student loan debt can dictate a student’s decisions later in life.
“Our capacity to make and change the world is going to be impacted,” Baran said. “What kind of future are we building for our children?”
With the book’s release, Kamenetz caught the attention of prominent scholars all over the nation, including Stephen Dubner, author of Times bestseller “Freakanomics,” who praised Kamenetz for her ability raw truths.
Kamentz’s Web site notes Publishers Weekly’s review of “Generation Debt.” It praises the book for its thorough investigation and lively approach. It complimented her skill in detailing the issue and making readers aware of its importance and the urgent need to find a solution to the problem.
But some reviews of Generation Debt found flaws in Kamenetz’s reasoning. One book-reviewing Web site, Monsters and Critics, said that though she addresses a worthwhile subject, there are too many holes in Kamenetz’s idealistic argument. The review reflects a repeated sentiment among critics that although the book is clear about the fact that real solutions must be discovered soon, it does not offer any practical financial advice to its readers.
“This is worthwhile material, and many readers will feel embarrassed complaining about their own lives after plowing through tales of grinding borderline poverty, but Kamenetz doesn’t satisfactorily string it all together,” the Web site said. “In a closing chapter looking at ways to turn things around, she relies too much on generational optimism and questionable comments.”
Another popular criticism is that Kamenetz is the wrong person to have written the book, as she was raised in a relatively privileged environment and is not weighed down by the loans and credit card debt that she addresses in her piece.
But Baran said he thinks this criticism is invalid. He said it is being made by people who do not want to face the truth of what Kamenetz is saying because it is so hard to accept.
Kamenetz said her future is rather uncertain — part of her wants to write another book, looking at the issues of Generation Debt on the global scale, while another part wants to put this subject aside and explore something new.
Kezia Kamenetz, who names Anya as her primary role model, said whatever her big sister decides to do, it is most important that she is interested and happy.
“She’s still really young,” Kezia Kamenetz said. “She has a lot of stuff ahead of her. I’m really proud of her.”
But for the time being, Anya Kamenetz said, she wants students to read the book to get an overview of the political and economic issues that plague their generation in hopes that they can glean some specific information from the text.
“I’d like to see students take up a common cause,” she said. “One of the most important political changes is diminishing opportunity and a decrease in social mobility. There needs to be a refocus on issues that are hitting close to home. Students need to start asking, ‘How am I going to manage my own life?'”