The Gen Z Cliff: Why student loan debt and high cost of living has them stressed tf out

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Imagine a world where you knew everything about the past, saw no change in the present and had no hope for the future — that’s what it’s like for Generation Z.

As digital natives, the youngest generation of adults has always navigated life with smartphones in their hands.

They have experienced issues like climate change and mass shootings playing on repeat across their screens since they were born, fostering feelings of dissociation and numbness toward unnormal and tragic events; for this generation, better known as Gen Z, iGen, zoomer, centennials and homelanders born between 1997 and 2012, they can turn their smartphones off but not the reality of a pilling list of problems bound to their futures.

Either they’re standing too close to the cliff or society has pushed them there with an abundance of life-altering challenges that are looming over this age group and it’s causing a feeling of deep worry about the state of the world, better known as the ‘Gen Z Cliff.’

“Current events are clearly stressful for everyone in the country, but young people are really feeling the impact of issues in the news, particularly those issues that may feel beyond their control,” says Arthur C. Evans Jr., CEO of the American Psychological Association.

Reckon has identified seven of the most threatening issues pushing Gen Z closer to the cliff and over the next few weeks, ‘The Gen Z Cliff” story series will highlight the impact of these challenges.

Questions like, ‘Should I go to college if I can’t afford it’ or ‘How am I going to pay back my student loan debt’ are directly intertwined with more worries of ‘How am I going to make rent’ and ‘Why are eggs so expensive?’

There is no conversation about student loan debt without the acknowledgment of how much it cost to live. This three-part story series begins with a look into these challenges: student loan debt and cost of living.

Spare the zoomer spoil the debt

“I propose to forgive all undergraduate tuition-related federal student debt.” In 2020, President Joe Biden while on the campaign trail, spoke the language many federal student loan borrowers wanted to hear.

His proposal to cancel student debt in tandem turned a significant amount of young voters out to the polls, making history as Millennials and Gen Z accounted for 31% of voters, up from 23% in 2016, according to Catalist.

While Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan, aimed at canceling up to $20,000 in federal student loan debt has yet to be decided on by SCOTUS, federal borrowers have benefitted from the student loan payment pause since the start of the pandemic – creating a cushy landing pad for more than 43 million borrowers.

For the last three years, those borrowers have been able to use and allocate their finances without the burden of paying down this debt.

Out of every borrower, this generation has a unique experience – never having paid on their federal student loan debt since the traditional Gen Z college student didn’t graduate until after the pandemic began.

If the Supreme Court blocks the student loan forgiveness plan, payments will be set to resume either 60 days after their decision, or 60 days after June 30 (when the payment pause ends).

“Should payments resume this year, borrowers will be forced to make unthinkable financial decisions like whether or not they can save for retirement, start a family or put food on the table,” Braxton Brewington, press secretary of The Debt Collective, a debt-elimination advocacy group told Reckon.

With the average student loan debt payment for those who are in good standing amounting close to $400 per month, this will not only be the first time a sizable portion of Gen Zers income will go toward this expense; it will also create an economic challenge, especially since Credit Karma found that 53% of Gen Z with federal student loans depend on not making payments for financial stability.

Read more: Gun violence. Climate change. LGBTQ justice. These Gen Z-led groups tackling our toughest challenges

Particularly borrowers of color, first-generation college students and those from HBCU and minority-serving institutions will face the brunt of paying back their student loan debt.

“Disproportionately women, Black and working class, these borrowers will struggle to live economically secure lives — dragging our nation’s economy down as well. Borrowers need full-scale debt relief to jumpstart the economy and put cash directly in the hands of folks who need it most,” Brewington said.

Trying to make a dollar out of 15¢

Financial instability is powerful enough to impact the entirety of a person’s life and with 46% of Gen Z living paycheck to paycheck, according to a survey from Deloitte, the reality of covering everyday bills like rent could quickly become unrealistic with any unplanned, inconvenient expense.

The cost of living has increased, wages are stagnated and inflation is skyrocketing – all of these economic issues have a ripple effect that is predicted by 58% of 48 economists who responded to a survey by the National Association for Business Economics to send the U.S. into a recession later this year – some predicting as early as July.

“There’s no guarantee that we’re (Gen Z) going to be able to buy a house and there might not even be a future where we have social security or Medicare,” Elijah Manley, CEO of Youth Victory Fund told Reckon.

Manley, a Gen-Zer and one of the youngest people to run for public office in Florida’s history at the age of 23 has first-hand experience of how cost of living has affected his livelihood and contributed to growing up in extreme poverty and houselessness.

“My personal story informs my politics and how I view the world – knowing that we got through those times because of community and not the government. So, I decided the best way to really fight was to run for public office.”

Gen Z and even Millennials, are making unprecedented lifestyle decisions based on their economic stability like no other generation has done before; whether putting a halt on having children until the cost of living lowers or delaying the home buying process due to student loan debt.

Lifestyles that align with the so-called “American Dream” like having a traditional wedding ceremony, buying a house, having children and even saving money are no longer considered a priority for a generation living paycheck to paycheck.

While working second jobs and having side hustles have always been a part of working-class America’s vocabulary, Gen Z has creatively capitalized on having additional jobs in a now mostly remote and hybrid work world.

‘Polyworking’ is more popular than ever, a phenomenon of working from home with multiple full-time jobs, something that more than 40% of people are doing.

A chef, food writer, cookbook author, painter, and entrepreneur, Zoey Gong, told Well+Good “From a mental health perspective, polyworking is really freeing.”

“If I am bored or tired of writing, I pick up my paint brushes; if I am stuck with a painting, I open my laptop and work on my new event-space business. My mind is always stimulated this way, and I’m able to be more creative.”

Because of a lack of financial stability, Gen Z out of every generation is splitting their time between three or more employers —meaning that 93% of Gen Zers are holding down multiple gigs, according to Paychex.

Working multiple jobs to get the bills paid is more than a lifestyle it is a way of survival for many Americans but it has and continues to take its toll on workers causing feelings of burnout, stress and lack of motivation.

People deciding between putting a roof over their heads or experiencing a hit to their mental health has always been a decision that every generation has been faced to make but additional challenges like paying student debt, climate change and stagnant wages will exacerbate Gen Zs funds.

“We want an economy that works for us,” Manley told Reckon.

Alexis Wray

Alexis Wray |

I report on HBCUs and Blackness, working to introduce voices and perspectives of students, alumni and community members that amplify the experiences of Black life on and off campus.

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