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In debt, out of work and living with Mom

Times Staff Writer

Jason Liebrecht used to write about his motorcycle adventures on his blog. But since early this month, the 36-year-old San Diego computer software engineer’s daily musings have been about a less thrilling new experience: unemployment.

“Do I find a job, or do I head to Central and South America on the motorcycle?” he wrote on Day 4. By Day 7, he had become more realistic: “So far in the last week I’ve made $1,245 off of EBay sales. Mostly stuff I wasn’t using, or don’t need much. Nice way to clean the house up!”

After selling some stock and applying for unemployment, Liebrecht figures he can pay his $2,300-a-month mortgage and other bills for just two months. When his company health insurance runs out in a few weeks, he’ll go uncovered because he can’t afford the premiums.

“You have to just hope you land on your feet,” Liebrecht said in an interview.

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People everywhere are coping with rising credit card balances, falling home values and layoffs. But such worries are particularly jarring for a younger slice of the workforce that has known little but long-term financial prosperity and optimism.

After all, a large share of today’s 20- and 30-somethings -- a nearly 80-million strong cohort -- were in college or high school (and some in grade school) the last time the country experienced a severe financial jolt. Some can barely remember the mild recession of 2001, which was followed by an extraordinary boom that coincided with their entry into the workforce.

Raised amid a long stretch of financial bounty and weaned on video games, cellphones, iPods and weekends at the mall, many Generation X and Y members have barely seen a time when they couldn’t spend freely on the latest styles and gadgets.

In these tighter times, they’re watching their spending and they’re borrowing money from family members for the first time. To economize, some are moving in with friends and -- the horror -- even Mom and Dad.

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And after years of being able to boast about promotions and climbing income, a growing number find themselves having to admit that they are out of a job. In the last year, the unemployment rate for 25- to 34-year-olds rose from 4.3% to 5.4% -- nearly twice the increase for age groups above them.

“This generation as a whole has not experienced any substantial kind of financial difficulty,” said Leslie Winefield, director of the Portland, Maine-based Institute for Financial Literacy. “It could be a defining moment for them.”

Jean Twenge, a San Diego State psychology professor and author of “Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled -- and More Miserable Than Ever Before,” said many are so far in debt that even a minor recession could be extremely challenging.

“Now they have to deal with losing their jobs, keeping their house and $4 gas,” Twenge said.

Paradoxically, she said research shows that younger people have grown up in a time of great wealth but have more anxiety about their economic future than past generations.

“They seem to be looking into the future and understanding they may not have it as easy as their parents,” she said.

Years of low unemployment may have masked the precarious finances of many young workers.

A study released last year by the Brookings Institution and the Pew Charitable Trust found that the median income of men in their 30s fell 12% from 1974 to 2004 when adjusted for inflation.

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Charged up

Credit card debt for the average 25- to 34-year-old rose 52%, from $2,873 to $4,357, between 1989 and 2004, when adjusted for inflation, according to the research institute. The age group also experienced the largest increase in those making late payments during that period, up from 3% of all cardholders to 12%.

Nearly a quarter of all bankruptcies in 2006 were filed by people ages 25 to 34, up 40% in the last decade. But the age group makes up only 14% of the adult population.

The state of the economy has passed the Iraq war as the top concern for voters between ages 18 and 29, according to a poll this month by CBS News and MTV, raising the possibility that economic anxiety among younger workers could weigh heavily on the upcoming presidential election.

Kelly McAuliffe of Los Angeles can’t believe how quickly she has gone from rushing to back-to-back business meetings to passing her days watching the Game Show Network and reruns of “Law & Order.”

Since getting laid off from an online advertising company in February, the 34-year-old former sales director has stopped meeting friends for drinks and has pared her grocery list (less Whole Foods, more sales at Ralphs). She’s scaling back her cellphone calls and where she drives because of rising gas prices.

To get by, she recently did the unthinkable: She borrowed money from her mother.

“It’s hard to say it, but it’s demeaning,” said McAuliffe, who has had a handful of job interviews in the last month. “You work so long to make your parents proud, and this is the last thing you expect to be doing at my age.”

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Ray of hope

Few experts predict that younger workers face a dire long-term financial future, and not everyone is suffering. Some say younger workers may weather the uncertainty of economic downturns well because they’re accustomed to changing jobs frequently.

The housing crisis might even open up opportunities.

“The bright spot is that younger people who didn’t buy a house in the last few years and who have some cash can get into the housing and stock markets” for the first time in years, said Boston University economist Laurence Kotlikoff.

Although there are few reliable statistics on how many among younger home buyers are dealing with foreclosure, some economists believe they are bearing the brunt of the housing downturn. The explosion of sub-prime loans coincided with many first-time buyers with poorer credit histories entering the market.

Edward Wolff, an economist at New York University who studies generational wealth differences, worries that many younger people could accumulate even more debt in this downturn on top of outsize college loans, credit card balances and mortgage payments.

“It’s not a doomsday scenario,” Wolff said. But younger people “are stretched thin and don’t have as much to fall back on.”

Time running out

Dulce Maya is worried that she won’t be able to squeeze by much longer. The 27-year-old restaurant manager bought a three-bedroom, two-bath house in Fontana for $350,000 two years ago with a $5,000 down payment and an adjustable-rate mortgage.

This year, her $2,300 monthly payment will probably rise to $3,300 and her work hours were recently cut because business is slow. Maya has asked her bank to lower her payments so she can keep her house, which is now valued at $200,000, and expects to hear back in the next few weeks. If it doesn’t agree, she says, she may have no choice but to hand the bank the keys.

“I don’t know what happens next,” Maya said. “I may try and rent an apartment for around what I’m paying, but rents are going up too.”

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daniel.costello@latimes.com


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