Our niece lived in our basement for years. First because she was in college and later because she was paying off or trying to pay off her massive student loans. Virginia Woolf famously said that what a woman needs to write is “a room of one’s own and 500 a year.” Both of these necessities are harder than ever to come by for the new generation of women, eager to launch their literary explorations yet mired in debt and stuck in family basements.
Generation Basement: that’s my nominee as a name for our own Lost Generation. I have heard them dubbed “Generation Cupcake,” “Generation Facebook” or “Generation Twilight,” according to author Libby Cudmore on my own blog.
Whatever we call them, many recent college graduates like my smart and talented niece, have found themselves becoming a new ‘indentured servant’ class. Of course, many less educated women are in much more dire straits. My novel GIRL HELD IN HOME was inspired by the real-life story of a young woman truly being “held” as an unpaid servant by a wealthy family who convinced her they controlled her visa. While college-educated women have more options, they too can find themselves trapped.
How can young women looking to explore a career in literature or any other profession make their way without reasonable hope of finding “500 a year” when their loans alone cost them $500-plus a month?
Recently on HER KIND, Raquel Goodison wrote movingly of her struggles– despite advanced degrees– to simply find an affordable apartment. Her plight reminded me of my niece, who holed up in our carpeted but cave-like basement throughout her college days and beyond, serving as a sitter and ‘big sister’ to our young son. We were happy to have her in our home. But we’ve been sad to see how she’s struggled for financial stability after working hard for her degree and graduating college.
As a Woody Allen character warns in the futuristic spoof Sleeper, maybe all the things our parents told us were good for us have turned out not to be: “milk, eggs, college.’
My husband and I remember our own ‘salad days’ when our young grad-student marriage was launched in a single room studio apartment we nicknamed “Sky Lab.” Living on the edge in New Haven, CT (a city without pity that we nicknamed “No Haven”), we at times had to sell boxes of our precious books to have money for groceries. Our travails were typical for students of our era, but there was light at the ends of our tunnels. Once we got our degrees, we got jobs and paychecks. We explored the country a bit, taking trips to Florida and San Francisco and beyond. We began the slow climb toward settling into a house of our own.
Not so for our niece. Lately, she and various family members have been relentlessly harassed by threatening calls from the loan organization as well as by emails explaining that we are not being “harassed” and defining “harassment” versus “due diligence.” True, students could have made wiser decisions instead of being sucked in by predatory loan groups, making it all sound as easy as signing on for another credit card.
My son wonders why his cousin should be allowed to sink in debt when Wall Street barons receive government bail-outs to cover their own bad decisions. A hopeful note for the future is that savvy teens like my radically-left son are growing up with a deep distrust for the big financial organizations that rule our country. My 13-year-old son has already attended “Make Wall Street Pay” and “Occupy” rallies as well as fundraisers for our state’s bold Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren, who has Wall Street’s number and, if elected, has a real chance of rewriting the rules for the next generation.
When our niece first moved into our basement, she tackled the overgrown bushes of our back yard with shears to give her basement windows more light. I remember admiring her work and seeing the enthusiastically chopped down branches piled outside her little windows, forming a pattern like a net. Luckily, our niece did have a ‘safety net’ to land in and a place to form her temporary nest. These days she, like so many, is caught in a wide net not of her own making.
Is it any wonder that rather than exploring the world in their twenties, Generation Basement tends to turn inward, “exploring” Facebook and the worldwide web as they seek escape from their webs of debt?
How can this Lost Generation make their own explorations and own marks when they can’t afford that elusive “room of one’s own”?