It’s been said by many that the American Dream is dead and most of us Millennials have little chance of achieving it — unless we were born wealthy, have an athletic or musical talent, or are incredibly lucky.
Suze Orman bluntly declared, “The American Dream is dead for the majority of America.” In a way, she may have a point.
After all, unemployment for the 35 and under demographic remains unusually high; homeownership is out of reach for many (thanks to tightened lending regulations and skyrocketing housing prices), and the stock market seems reluctant to show continuous positive growth.
If the dream is dead, then why are so many young people still so… optimistic?
Quite simply, the American Dream has shifted, along with the changing of the generational guard.
Whereas the United States used to be more homogenous in nature and shared a collective mindset, we have shifted and become a nation of individuals with no defined goal, except to live life on our own terms and make a difference in the world.
Like many in my generation, I grew up being held to benchmarks and standards set by someone else in an attempt to force me to conform to some predetermined ideal. This was usually influenced by our parents, society, the media or some combination of all three.
Since the day we were born, our parents checked off boxes to make sure we were meeting benchmarks. Were we sitting up by the time we were 8 months old? Were we able to identify colors by age 2? Were we able to dribble basketballs by the time we were 6? When we were 18, did we make socially acceptable choices?
Of course, our parents had our best interests in mind; they wanted us to meet all of these targets so we could eventually get married by the time we were 25, buy a house in the suburbs and an SUV, have two kids by the time we were 30, and retire by 55, watching our children and grandchildren repeat the endless cycle.
Even Iowa politician Leonard Boswell stated,
The American Dream is one of success, home ownership, college education for one's children, and have a secure job to provide these and other goals.
The ideas reflected by Mr. Boswell, who was born in 1934, are out of touch with reality, as evidenced by a 2012 study conducted by Dr. Michael Ford of American Dream Studies at Xavier University, whose research concluded that,
Thirty-two percent of respondents pointed to 'freedom' as their dream; 29 percent to 'opportunity'; and 21 percent to the 'pursuit of happiness.' A fat bank account can be a means to these ends, but only a small minority believe that money is a worthy end in itself.
So, what caused this cultural paradigm shift?
It was both fortunate and unfortunate events that shifted the concept of perpetual American happiness and idealism forever. The unfortunate part of the situation is that Ms. Orman is accurate in her assessment, at least from a financial perspective.
The odds of getting married by 25, buying the big house in the suburbs, having kids and living happily-ever-after are slim to none for most and have become something of a kitschy urban legend joked about by young people who share lofts, stack Tupperware atop of Ikea shelving units, and pray they get called back for second interviews.
However, it’s not all financial. Many of us grew up seeing the dark side of the American Dream. Our generation had the highest rate of divorced parents and watched as members of our families lost their jobs, then their homes and, eventually, their dignity.
This was especially noticeable growing up in Detroit in the 1990s and 2000s, as I watched the city my grandparents built in pursuit of their American Dream crumble around us.
It seems that by the time we were old enough to buy lottery tickets, we had become so collectively jaded, the American Dream as our parents and grandparents knew it had turned into an American nightmare.
Yet, we had a beacon of light to guide us through our passage from youth into adulthood.
For the first time in history, the Internet opened our youthful eyes to a world bigger than we ever could have imagined. The poorest of the poor saw that there was a world beyond the barbed wire and junkyards of their neighborhoods.
The kids who were socially isolated sought comfort in finding others who were experiencing the same struggle. Those who chose to express themselves through performance had a worldwide audience and were no longer bound by the constraints of their bedrooms.
Several of my friends used the Internet to find jobs thousands of miles away, essentially providing them with a ticket to a better life, which is something that would have been almost impossible just 30 years ago.
These dynamics created a situation where, now more than ever, some of us are realizing that it’s ridiculous to attempt to live our lives on someone else’s standards, according to someone else’s dreams.
We’ve come to realize that wanting something else doesn’t make us deviants. Besides careers, we just want to be able to marry who we want (or choose not to marry at all), live where we choose, learn from our own mistakes and pursue whatever interests we desire to explore.
We use technology to connect to others because, as many of us know all too well, the comfort of friends can buffer the sting of rejection, heartbreak and struggle.
A dream better than wealth
Sure, we all want money, but a more precious commodity than money is personal freedom and the choice to live life on our own terms.
Our generation isn’t much different than the Internet, which played a role in raising us. We download information the same way we capitalize on the opportunities around us. On the flip side, we also upload and contribute, in hopes that we will give more back to the world than we took from it.
Some of my friends want to be doctors, nurses, police, fire and military servicemen and women to save lives in the traditional sense of the word. Some hope to be teachers and professors to inspire future generations. Many aspire to be actors or musicians to entertain the masses and provide an escape from some of the bleaker realities of our world.
As a whole, we don’t want our elders to feel sorry for us because we aren’t as financially well-off as they may have been at our age. I would feel sorry for them because they didn’t have the freedoms and access to the world we have, but that goes against the true spirit of the vision, which is that everyone can embrace the American Dream.
The American Dream is not the exclusive purview of the young.
So, what is my personal American Dream? I’ve never been the best athlete, the top of my class or anywhere near the financial top 1 percent.
My dream is to be a writer. Last year, I wrote an article, published on CNN, about not wanting children, and I received hundreds of emails from people who let me know how much it meant to them.
Knowing my writing brought comfort and hope to others was a good feeling far beyond anything money can possibly buy.
While I hope to write a bestselling book, it’s more important to me that through the power of the written word and the power of the Internet, I’ll be able to mirror the collective aspirations of my peers, and in turn, let others know they are not alone.
We are all in this together.