I've been searching my memory banks lately, trying to recall what the economy was like when I graduated from college in 1972.

I do remember that, despite the recommendation of a guidance counselor, I had not set up job interviews.

I already had five years' experience as a reporter and five as a radio announcer. I washed dishes, cleaned floors and proctored underclassmen to pay my way through school; I had only $6,000 in student loans, with repayment scheduled to start in August 1973. (For six years, I sent a check for $79.36 each month to the bank.)

After I left school, I had several job offers. One radio station offered me $125 a week; the successful bidder was a newspaper at $143.49 a week, for which I worked for the next 41/2 years.

According to my inflation calculator, in today's dollars, all this would translate into a weekly salary of $729.67, a student loan of $30,000, and a monthly repayment over six years of $387.

Could I afford to buy even a junior condo in a building downtown? Probably not.

Since I became a college grad, the results of a survey by Demos, a nonpartisan public-policy research organization, show:

Incomes have declined for most young workers: Between 1975 and 2005, typical earnings for young men (25 to 34) with only a high school diploma fell 29 percent, while women's earnings declined 10 percent.

Typical earnings for young workers with some college have fallen 21 percent for men and 6 percent for women. Earnings for young workers with college degrees were flat among men, but rose 10 percent for women.

The average college graduate has nearly $20,000 in debt; average credit-card debt has increased 47 percent between 1989 and 2004 for 25-to-34-year-olds and 11 percent for 18-to-24-year-olds. One in five 18-to-24-year-olds is in "debt hardship," up from 12 percent in 1989.

From what I see in the grocery store every week, the squeeze is getting tighter. For example, a year ago a quart of cream cost $4.99; today, it costs $6.99. A 12-ounce bag of Eight O'Clock Colombian coffee is $6.19, up from $4.61 a year ago. (I told the cashier they should start calling it "Nine O'Clock" coffee.)

In 1972, I also bought my first new car. A year later came the oil embargo, and we were lucky if we could get a spot in line to fill the tank.

In 1972, gasoline was selling for 36 cents a gallon. Adjusted for inflation, that's $1.36 today. In October 1973, it was $1, still cheap if you could find it.

Of course, even when gas was $1 a gallon, crude oil was $12 a barrel. Today, it's well over $100 a barrel; unleaded regular in South Jersey the second week of May was $3.47 a gallon.

These days, higher rents are absorbing more of young workers' incomes.

In 1980, the average gross rent payment absorbed 22 percent of a 25-to-34-year-old's income; in 2006, it was 25 percent. The youngest adults experienced greater increases: a rise from 26 percent in 1980 to 32 percent in 2006.

More young people are considered "housing burdened," which means they pay more than 30 percent of their pretax income on rent.

In 2005, 43 percent of 25-to-34-year-olds spent more than one-third of their pretax income on rent, up from 18 percent in 1970.

But remember, young people - first-time buyers - are the engine that drives the real estate market. If not for them, current homeowners could not trade up to larger houses when families grow, nor could they downsize when they become empty-nesters.

Look at the foreclosure filings nationally, especially in formerly high-flying areas such as California and Florida, to see what the result of stretching beyond one's means can be.

Becoming a first-time home buyer remains a possibility in a lot of markets - especially this one. There are fixed-rate mortgages with low interest rates, and plenty of houses for sale here, with lots of sellers eager to deal.

But be realistic: Things can change quickly. Don't just hope for the best. Make sure what you do is best for you.

"On the House" appears Sundays in The Inquirer. Contact Alan J. Heavens at 215-854-2472 or aheavens@phillynews.com.