The Dream Is Over

Washington City Paper | February 3, 2006
What may be most amazing about Tamara Draut’s Strapped: Why America’s 20- And 30-Somethings Can’t Get Ahead is how many of the scenarios parodied in Max Barry's Company: A Novel actually play out in real life. If Barry’s digs at corporate capitalism are a rapier, Draut’s are a battle-ax swung without mercy. While Company satirizes the winners and losers of this American economic game, Draut posits that there aren’t many winners at all.

If getting an education, forging a career, starting a family, and owning a home were fundamental to 20th-century middle-class life, then Strapped is the eulogy for that existence. Throughout the book, Draut places American young adults’ lost dreams in stark contrast to the perception, driven by Madison Avenue, of young professionals overtaking the corporate world. Rather than representing some youth-soaked Xanadu where, as Draut puts it, “romper room...replaced the board room,” Draut’s statistics point to an increasingly unstable corporate America where young workers are “getting a taste of the free market,” indeed.

Draut’s thoroughness means some of her insights can be a long time in coming, but when they come, they artfully compile raw, publicly accessible data that fly directly in the face of many assumptions we make about the work force. Draut puts the lie to the dream of making middle management (those jobs were eviscerated in the ’80s), the irresponsibility of credit-card debt (an overwhelming majority of young people’s plastic debts are a matter of survival), and the lax values of today’s youth (they’re far less partisan, far more devoted to family, and way more willing to work extra hours and jobs to save for their children’s education than the Boomers were).

And yet 20-somethings are dedicated to the grind even though they lack the educational opportunities their parents had. Draut recounts the decay of the American educational system to its present state, where financial aid has been systematically stripped from the poor, where diplomas cost more but mean less, and where changing one’s major can be a $50,000 mishap. “While European countries rely heavily on taxes to fund social policies that minimize inequality, America has historically looked to education as the great equalizer,” Draut writes. “I don’t know where we’re looking now.”

Draut has a name for her nemesis: “hypercapitalism,” the investor-driven, service-and-knowledge economy that so quickly and powerfully changed the way America does business. As hypercapitalism has forced productivity levels higher and higher, she writes, it has done little to improve the quality of life of American workers. If nothing else, it’s what has led to the growing lack of cohesion and trust among co-workers, peers, and others portrayed in Company. Compared with the plot of Company, in fact, the brief personal narratives that litter Strapped fall short. They’re real enough—single mothers juggling three jobs and child care; working-class black couples paying off mountains of college debt; the Ivy-educated Connecticut family still living check to check because they chose to live in the out-of-control Northeast housing market—but almost too perfectly real. They’re stories so mundanely tragic, they start to seem like parodies themselves.

But Draut offers more than sob stories. Director of the Economic Opportunity Program at Demos, a lefty think tank, she proposes solutions that are inspired by policies she’s already seen have success, not by some preconceived ideological concept of what should work: She suggests, for example, that state university systems specialize specific campuses by field to reap efficiencies that could lower tuition and attract better students.

It’s unfortunate that the changes Draut wants aren’t even on the radar: They concern a relatively small, tuned-out demographic and would require approval from a White House and Congress for whom Reaganization—Draut’s term for the quasi-religious belief that whatever government is doing, under any circumstances, it is doing poorly—isn’t a tragedy but in fact a sweet dream.

Draut is nonetheless content to make the case that young folks, despite the popular narrative, actually have too little a sense of entitlement. Like the “displaced” workers in Company, America’s young adults are allowing their identities to be molded by debt, immobility, instability, and, increasingly, poverty. In Strapped, Draut shows them why they deserve a larger bite of what is a rapidly vanishing doughnut.

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