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Millennials are Revising the American Dream


Today’s post in the Millennial Perspectives Series comes to us from Hailey Hirst of Go Forth, Explorer. Enjoy!

The “American Dream” is dead.

Okay, maybe not, but it seems like that’s what a lot of people are saying these days (like here and here!).

Although I don’t necessarily think it’s dead, I think the “American Dream” is evolving by necessity. In this alteration of ideals, the Millennials have a big hand, because, well, the “American Dream” of previous generations isn’t attainable for us today. And in this revision of ours, the pathways to success, and the definition of success aren’t the same for us as they were before.

I’m a recent graduate – a 23-year-old grappling with the end of my academic life and the rough transition into adulthood – and I’ve been thinking a lot about the “American Dream” in the months since my college graduation.

The truth: I feel let down. I know it’s an inherently 20 something trait to be full of doubts about the future, but from blurbs on the web and from knowing my own peers, it seems like Millennials just have it way worse than our parents did.

They raised us with the belief that a strong work ethic and a drive to succeed could mean a good life. We thought we’d grow up and have the career, the spouse, the kids, a nice house, and maybe a fun loving golden retriever running around the yard. We have been on the path towards those things, by getting good grades in school and following high school with college, but now entering the work force, Millennials are commonly finding that the “American Dream” as our parents taught us is falling flat.

So, we are coming to terms with this new reality. We are facing the fact that we are not entering the same economy and workforce our parents did after college. Along with the widening wealth gap and double-digit unemployment rate for our age range, we cannot expect to attain the same successes our parents did on the same paths.

With this new reality comes the realization that the modern “American Dream” means potentially stepping away from the traditional careers, lifestyles, and measures of success. It’s somewhat liberating to realize that we get to live differently than our parents, but really, the prospect of having to create our own jobs and carve our own pathway to success is incredibly daunting.

Where do we start? How do we make ourselves a niche? Can we still be “successful” without a 9-5 salaried job with benefits?

This uncertainty has been my biggest struggle of post-grad life. I graduated with two degrees with honors in four years, and my prospects after college? Not good. If I had chosen an education in a technical field, or in a profession dealing with natural resources (like my Mining Engineer boyfriend) I may have been better off finding a job. Instead I chose to study the arts, and applying my literature courses (regardless of how enriching and important they were to my education) to a non-academia-related job in this economy has been just plain awful.

Even so, I’m finding out by reading blog posts and articles and Facebook statuses, that I, like so many of my generation, probably would still be struggling even if I’d had a different degree. And why is this? Because the majority of us are in this boat: having to re-envision what success will look like for us, and re-invent a route to get there.

So, what does that mean?

Well, it means a lot more uncertainty, unfortunately.

It means that since most of us will be hard pressed to find entry-level jobs into our chosen field, we must look toward technology and non-traditional jobs (like web-based freelance, short term, and part time gigs). It also means we must also be innovative in gaining experience, or creating that experience for ourselves, to build meaningful work. For people like me, burgeoning writers who don’t find editorial internships or staff writing jobs, it means creating and spreading work on various platforms, some paid, some unpaid, to carve out our own space in a technically diverse and increasingly virtual realm of writing.

And as far as defining success goes, I think a lot of us have to give up the picturesque idea that pops up so naturally at the phrase “American Dream” – the house in nice neighborhood, a happy family, a dog. We’ve got to burn that imaginary house down and re-imagine success to fit with our own goals, in a reasonable (probably small) home, apartment, cabin, or a tent on a mountaintop for that matter. Plus since our income level may never rebound to match (let alone exceed) our parents, we can’t let money define our success. Rather, we must strive on the satisfaction we feel from the work we choose.

It’s possible, but it will take hard work and determination from all of us. Said beautifully here, Millennials are the new American dreamers, and we have the skills and motivation to lead us into the “next version of America.” There is hope, yet.

I’m finding satisfaction in writing about things I find important, building a blog, traveling and seeing that success is measured in all sorts of different ways around the world so maybe the old “American Dream” was overrated anyway. But most of all, I am grateful for my parents’ house and health insurance while I struggle my way through these uncertain years into a different life that I will have made for myself.

What are your thoughts on the current status of the American Dream?!

Photo Credit: Brave Heart

Hailey Hirst About the author: Hailey Hirst is a twenty-something writer from Boise, Idaho, trying to figure it all out (or whatever that means.) She writes articles and essays, and has recently started blogging at Go Forth, Explorer (http://goforthexplorer.blogspot.com/) about travel and life as she knows it.

What do you think?

12 comments… add one

  • I agree with you. We have to change our ideas about how things are going to turn out for us, and we also have to ignore our shocked parents when we can’t find the job with the benefits that they want for us…because those are few and far between these days. But we must remain hopeful that life will work out, and we must be self sufficient in a way that many people would find uncomfortable.

  • […] Interesting post from one of my favorite blogs, Working Self. How Millennials are rewriting the American Dream. […]

  • Nick Loper says:

    I think you’re spot on. The new American Dream is less about stability and more about freedom, independence, and meaning.

    • Hailey Hirst Hailey Hirst says:

      Yes, thank you Nick! That’s the perfect summary of what I was getting at!

      • Pia Louise says:

        Great article. I tell my 3 kids all the time but they need to hear it from their peers. Who wants that linear lifestyle your parents aka my generation offered up? Life is so much richer and full of possibilities than that. And I believe it is by – carving out your own ideals and offering your generations’ take on life. So much has changed since we were you age. It’s all changed. And life continues to change – that’s all it is.

    • Pia Louise says:

      Yes I agree with you. Please share that belief and encourage your peers.

  • I agree that we’re going to have to redefine the American Dream, but I think that will be difficult to do. Most Millennials are focused on happiness over money, which is great, but I’m not sure if we realize how much money is necessary for us to be happy.

    Even a modest-sized house and one or two children is expensive. I think as we get to different stages in our lives, we’re going to have to make sacrifices. Dream job or financial security? Kids or enough money to retire before the age of 75?

    It’ll be really interesting to see how Gen Y turns out and how our society is redefined as we make our way up in it.

    • Hailey Hirst Hailey Hirst says:

      Good points here! It’s tricky, and hugely varies for each individual, to make those choices to find a balance between fulfilling dreams and having security!

      There’s a key difference though between a focus on happiness versus a focus on finding meaning, which a New York Times article from last week reports on: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/01/opinion/sunday/millennial-searchers.html?_r=0

      It’s definitely worth a read! It says, “Many researchers believe that millennials are focusing more on happiness than prior generations… But a closer look at the data paints a slightly different picture. Millennials appear to be more interested in living lives defined by meaning than by what some would call happiness.” And moreover, “Having a sense of meaning is not the same as feeling happy.”

      But regardless of happiness or meaning or general fulfillment, being mindful of the monetary expense of a baseline standard of living is very important! So, thank you for bringing that up! As much as we want to focus on seeking meaningful work and finding satisfaction, we need to remember that we’re going to have bills to pay in the meantime.

      I also think it will be interesting to see how this generation turns out, and to see what kind of changes come about in the economy and workforce as a whole as more and more millennials go into the world and make their mark.

      Thanks for your feedback! It’s great to get a conversation going.

  • Camron says:

    Hailey, I really enjoyed reading your blog and look forward to more!

  • Sebastian says:

    I’m in a senior in college right now with one semester left.

    You know what makes me laugh?

    Reading everyone’s Facebook saying stuff like, I found my dream job sitting in a desk working my ass off all day. I don’t know. People are weird.

    Maybe it is their dreams hahaha. Sure it’s not mine.

    • Hailey Hirst Hailey Hirst says:

      Good for the Facebook friends who like their desk jobs, but good for you knowing you wouldn’t be satisfied doing the same! It’s all about doing things we find satisfying.

  • Jeannine Coupe Fortier says:

    Kudos to you for your insightful words!

    I am a baby boomer and I chose to let go of the “American Dream” decades ago. Fortunately, my lack of a college degree has not affected my ability to stay employed the past 20 years as an IT consultant. Yes, I had the foresight in the early 80′s to guide my “career” down the technology path because I knew as a single mother that I would be able to provide food and a roof for myself and my son as well as enjoy my work (most of the time). There were times when the roof was flimsy, but we stayed dry!

    My advice to you if you will indulge me… Enjoy and take pride in everything you accomplish in this life, whether living in a tent or a mansion; do not measure your success by your “career” or the antiquated concept of the “American Dream”.

    Let go of worry, hang in there and be happy!

    Sincerest wishes!
    your great Aunt, Jeannine.