What once was a recipe consisting of a few key ingredients (a 9-to-5 career, a loving marriage, and a comfortable suburban-based home life), now more resembles an episode of Chopped: the key ingredients are still there, but everyone adds their own flavor. While the boomer’s generation is best characterized by the phrase, “consistency is key,” the motto of the millennial generation is, “variety is the spice of life.”
I am 25, unmarried, childless, and without a property that is truly my own; nevertheless, I feel like I am living the American dream.
My manifestation of the American dream has not been conventional. But, why? I excelled in school, sports, and worked hard. The answer? I don’t think I wanted it to be. I didn’t want to fence myself in, both literally and figuratively. I wanted the vastness that is the world.
So, the world is what I sought out. I studied abroad and then, earned a Fulbright scholarship that allowed me to create a life in Sri Lanka and later opened up the opportunity for me to move to Korea. These experiences do not exactly mirror those of many my age, but they are similar. Millennials want to see more and do more, so that they can impact the world more.
According to published reports, the millennial generation is the biggest demographic in the nation, passing the boomers that once held the title. Numbering at 66 million, millennials are more ethnically diverse and more highly educated than any group before them (and strapped with the student debt to prove it).
In Horatio Alger’s American dream, a core theme is that anyone can build a life for his/her self and reach success as long as they work hard and adhere to a moral path. But, people like Stephano Abusleme, 23, make it clear that “the American dream is no longer a certainty if you put in the work now with even some college grads struggling to find jobs.” David Vititow, 25, considers this changing dreamscape as well saying, “I think our generation still strives for the American dream, but we are in school longer and when we are out, there aren’t always good paying jobs in our fields.”
It used to be that graduating with a college degree guaranteed a working position. However, slower rates of economic growth coupled with larger piles of student debt have created circumstances where millennials have to compromise; taking a free internship to get a foot in the door of a career while living with parents or abandoning a traditional career all together and opting to start something of their own.
Consequently, the millennial generation is inventing a new dream that doesn’t depend on owning a home or even, having a traditionally stable job. In fact, the millennial version of the American dream makes the traditional one seem a bit like a prison sentence.
The buzzword that so many millennials throw around is “experience.” More than clothes, cars, houses, or stable partners, millennials want experience. “I want experiences more than owning a home,” says Kayla Todd, 28. Many of those realizing this new dream have been privileged with a stable upbringing in a middle class family and are looking to expand upon the dream that their parents have already provided- a Manifest Destiny of sorts. But, this time they’re going North, South, East, and West and everyone’s treasure looks different.
Summer Stone, 19, states. “There is more to the American Dream now… for me and a lot of my peers, we want more experiences. My goal is to go to a different country every year.” Many believe that adding more experience to their life will enhance their knowledge and understanding of the world and ultimately, enhance the lives of their kids and future generations.
But, for someone like John Youngblood, 68, the millennial way of life seems irresponsible, “Young people think they are going to live forever, they want to experience all kinds of things. They make a lot of mistakes. And, you know who they fall back on? Mommy and Daddy.” There is a certain level of luxury that comes from growing up in a family that’s already achieved the traditional American dream- and falling back on Mommy and Daddy may be one of them. But, this adventurous spirit is also a reflection of something else- an era of risk-takers, idea chasers, and entrepreneurial curiosity.
Elizabeth Green, 30 year- old business owner states, “Before people had a sense of loyalty with companies, they wanted to grow within companies and I don’t really feel like that’s the case anymore. But, now there are a lot of entrepreneurs and job hoppers. There is this whole new realm of self-starters like bloggers. Some older generations think millennials come off as entitled- but it’s just so different now. Their goals aren’t the same.”
Indeed, their goals aren’t the same. In fact, so many of them have radically different goals than one another, let alone other generations. “You can’t put us all under an umbrella anymore. We are all carrying our own umbrellas and we all have our own picture of what the American dream is. Our ideals of the American dream have shifted. You think you’re going to be moved out of your parents’ house and doing all the crazy stuff when you’re in your mid-20s, but in all reality, maybe it was your first semester in college and you changed your mind and now your American dream is finishing that trade-school, or internship, or traveling,” says Nina Therese, 20.
Luke Loparco, 22, said he believes that “the American dream is still strived towards, but a good percent of millennials would like to be mobile and less anchored to one location. Travel is a more popular thing to strive for than it has been in the past.”
Rachel Scheuer, 24 echoes Luke’s desire for mobility and possibly something else. “I think the American dream is really less about being in America overall. We want to be the movers and shakers who literally move and shake our way around the globe. We want to work less and see/do more. We want to be connected, but only permanently to wifi.”
Perhaps, part of the millennial desire for an ever-changing scene is less about truly desiring to be so many places but rather, the fear of being stuck, tethered, or permanently connected. Worried that a stable job, house, and family would equate to a boring life—like a profile with the same picture all year or a status that’s never updated.
Growing up with constant access to technology has played a large role on the millennial mindset. “The American dream is the same but millennials lack the means to stay on the American dream line. Our attention spans are terrible from our excessive ease of info and of communication through technology,” says Vititow. Perhaps the millennial generation has become so accustomed to a constant flow of new information and experiences, that they desire the same level of stimulation in their physical lives that they are used to in their digital ones.
The early inhabitants of the United States created their own rules and precedents of what would be acceptable in this land, framing the constitution for America, a country unlike any before them. In a similar way, millennials have come to the forefront, taken the land that the dream was built upon and begun dreaming on top of it.
“Our generation is striving for something new, because of how the world has become so corrupt it’s like we’re fighting back against the mistakes they made,” says Trevor Pfau, 22.
Katie Gale, 24, inches closer to this new way of life, “People are waking up to what’s actually important and straying away from materialism; living life and staying present and taking care of the planet. I think people are becoming more consscientious.”
The new dream involves more than just a personal sense of prosperity and freedom but something deeper, a greater sense of respect for the Earth and our interconnectedness. Stone states, “Our generation cares so much more about the environment than the past. Even when I was in middle school, we had recycling and movements likes ‘Go Green’ enveloped in our school system and values.”
Consumerism is at the heart of the traditional American dream. Americans want money so they can buy things. Sometimes, these are things they don’t even need or necessarily truly want. And although it is a privilege to have this ability, the damage of unchecked consumerism is far reaching- affecting the land, sea, and air. Beyond the physical repercussions of consumer culture, research is indicating that the old message that buying things will make people happier is false- the ever bigger house and the newer car can only do so much for so little time.
And yet, wanting experiences is another kind of consumption. It is less visible but equally as consuming. I went through it and would know, gallivanting the globe, wanting to live every single breath to the fullest! And yet, despite doing that and cherishing those experiences so much, I realized that it wasn’t the experiences that made life fulfilling but rather, the relationships.
It was in experiencing all these things that I came to realize the value of staying put, of investing in something and someone, of beginning as a seed and willingly dying for something I believed in. It was every time I had to leave something so wonderful that I had been a part of, that I realized the value of both starting something and maintaining it. Perhaps, it was in living the American dream of the millennials that I came to value the American dream of my parents and their parents. The idea of sacrifice—truly nurturing something to completion even if meant you didn’t reap the benefits, the value of loyalty and rootedness.
Regardless, of what it looks like or what generation it is sprouting from, everyone has the right to pursue the American dream. Ryan Groh, 25, worries about that right for immigrants who have long been a part of pursuing the American dream. “The American dream looks like the beautiful valley, desert and coast of Southern California. A wall being built will block the opportunity of the American dream for many people.” However, some such as Hablame, a child of immigrants himself, feels that although some people are definitely more negative about the existence of an American dream, “people from immigrant families are still grateful for the opportunity to pursue and accomplish this dream.”
The Declaration of Independence states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Interestingly enough, statistics show that when millennials do “settle down,” whether it’s a mobile or a permanent state, they tend to want the same core things as other generations: love, freedom, joy, and peace. In other words, the journey looks different, but the core motivation is the same.
“In some ways, the American Dream hasn’t really changed so much as just adapted with the times, you know? I think the one constant thing everyone will strive for is happiness,” said Reilly McMahan, 17.
This pursuit of happiness may be all over the globe or it may be concentrated in one place. It may be built with experiences or with things. It may be made with factory jobs or start- ups, spouses and kids or a lifetime of great backpacking trips. Regardless, a white-picket fence is built around it as a new dream is conceived and protected. So, that the lived dreams of the generations before, can be the building blocks for the generations after.