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Colleges themselves have exacerbated the problem. Administrators allow credit card companies to hound fresh-faced college students on campus because the school often gets campus activities underwritten by credit card companies in exchange for access to their students.
But the problem isn't just financial pitfalls. It's also a need for instant gratification. Since birth, Generation Me has been spoon-fed self-esteem and told they could be whoever they wanted to be, says Jean Twenge, a San Diego State University psychology professor and author of Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled -- and More Miserable Than Ever Before. She adds that they don't want to earn it -- they expect it to be handed to them. A 2002 survey conducted by Twenge and professors at the University of Georgia found that young people mostly agreed with the traditionally narcissistic statements "I am a special person" and "I can live my life any way I want to." The self-esteem that's seemingly made young people more confident and ambitious has crossed over into entitlement, and caused them to have unrealistic expectations -- which they often fulfill through debt.
"Materialism is the most obvious outcome of a straightforward, practical focus on the self: you want more things for yourself," Twenge writes. "You feel entitled to get the best in life: the best clothes, the best house, the best car."
It has given young people a perceived buying power that causes them to dig themselves into a valley of debt. Eighteen- to 35-year-olds have been raised on video games, reality TV shows and magazines that convince them they must get goods to be happy and successful. They're the target demographic for the avalanche of modern-day advertising, and yet are the ones who can least afford such possessions.
"Differentiating between wants and needs is a very tough thing at this age," says Todd Mark, director of consumer relations for CCCS.
Part of students' mentality, Mark says, comes from imitating their parents' spending habits. Many young people grew up watching mom and dad swipe cards and immediately get goods. But most parents never showed their children the bills that came at the end of the month or told them if they were struggling to make the payments. Last year, the United States had its first negative savings rate -- meaning people spent more money than they actually earned -- since the Great Depression.
Georgia hasn't exactly been a role model. The state leads the country in foreclosures, with nearly one in every 127 households being foreclosed upon. And last year the state ranked third in having the highest number of people who filed for bankruptcy -- an average of one household in every 42, compared to the national rate of one in 73.
"On a whole as a country, we're living beyond our means," Mark says. "It shouldn't be a surprise that kids are going out into the real world without the skills they need."
Clayton English writes a check to the federal government for $78.53 each month. That's his current payment for his college student loans, which total $28,000, not including interest. It's only going to stay that cheap for another month or two because he was able to wrangle with the feds and explain that his earnings couldn't cover a typical monthly payment. By the end of the year, the 6.8 percent interest rate will kick back in and his payment will jump up to at least $115 a month. At that rate, it will take him another 40 years to pay off his loans.
Two years ago, English wouldn't have imagined he'd be struggling to pay for his education. The tall, slim 24-year-old from Powder Springs majored in business administration at Florida A&M University and aimed to become an entrepreneur or nab a high-paying corporate position. But when he graduated he couldn't find a good job in marketing or advertising, so he settled for an $8-an-hour part-time gig at IKEA -- about $280 a week without benefits -- in the living rooms department. "Every check I get goes to paying for stuff I already have or stuff I did in the past," English says.
He lives with his parents to save money, but his monthly bills still total around $650. He pays for his cell phone, student loans, credit cards, car note and insurance. He went over the $2,500 limit on one of his credit cards and his monthly minimum payment is now $98 instead of the $60 minimum he paid before. And late in the summer, he got into a car accident and totaled his 2002 Mazda 626. He's looking for a new car, but is still paying off the $2,500 he owes on the wrecked one.
Sometimes he feels his generation isn't ready to face the real world. "We aren't as well-prepared," he says. "The older generations were shown how to be an adult. For us it's like, 'Do what you want to do and see what happens.'"
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