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Setting her own trend: Savvy young hairstylist is among young people confronting the new economy

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 24 2013 11:45 p.m. MDT

At 20, Kayley Jones is debt free, paid cash for a car, rents her own place and has ample savings in the bank. In a rough job market and a stagnant economy, making early hard choices has become critical for emerging adults.

Eric Schulzke

Kayley Jones can think of three things she'd like to own: a nice SLR camera, a better violin to replace the one she used growing up and a more powerful laptop with better graphics. At the moment, she could "afford" any of these. But she is not all that tempted.

"I don't really need a lot of things," said the petite, energetic hairstylist from Auburn, Calif. "I'd rather have the money."

When the subprime crisis exploded and the market crashed in the fall of 2008, Jones was just 15. Now 20, she has only vague memories of the crash itself.

But she lives with its effects every day, and in ways she may not entirely recognize, the new economic landscape seems to have shaped her attitudes toward education, careers, savings and material consumption.

Since Jones entered the workforce, median income has fallen and now seems stalled. Credit card debt has come down slightly, but student debt has skyrocketed. Savings rates remain near historic lows, and the ratio of employed workers to population plunged after the crash and has yet to budge. Some economists have begun to speak of a "lost decade," analogous to that suffered by Japan in the 1990s and beyond.

The resulting picture is much more focused and somber than Jones' parents would have seen at her age, in the go-go '80s and '90s, an era of prosperity with plentiful jobs, rising income levels, falling savings rates and high levels of consumer debt.

The new economics are forcing young people like Jones to confront head-on difficult choices about education, careers, debt burdens and the time value of money.

Her own trend

Jones seems in many ways a natural fit for the new economy. She is naturally frugal and seems to enjoy the challenge of self-discipline.

"I continuously remind myself of reasons to save," Jones said. "I might need a new car soon. I need money to start my business. I need to start a retirement. I might need to find a new apartment. I might have all of the above needing to happen at once. Worst-case scenarios tend to haunt the financial side of my brain."

A home-schooler through her early years, Jones started attending a local junior college when she was 15. She toyed with pursuing a music degree but decided she liked the assurance and flexibility of hairstyling and cosmetology. Being able to balance that skill with family life down the road was an important factor, she said. She also wanted to avoid student debt and become self-sufficent as quickly as possible.

Jones recently paid cash for a used Toyota Camry, has no debt, pays rent for her own place, has already set aside substantial savings and is now developing her own client base, looking toward opening her own studio.

She is unusual for her age bracket. In an era when many young people are piling on student loans on their way to degrees that might not lead to careers and an environment in which one recent poll found that 40 percent of recent graduates reported underemployment — holding no jobs or jobs that did not require their degree — Jones has steady work and no debt.

In a world that often seems torn between the "you can do anything" myth and the "I can't get a break" excuse, Jones appears to have found a path of hard work matched with realistic expectations.

Missing workers

Jones avoided the first pitfall of the new economy simply by being employed in her chosen profession. The Associated Press reported this spring that more than 53 percent of recent college graduates under 25 were unemployed or underemployed, many working in retail and food industry jobs. A recent Pew study found 53 percent in the same age bracket had moved in with their parents at some point in recent years or lived there now.

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