- Posted July 12, 2014 by
This iReport is part of an assignment:
My American Dream is …
How Our Generation is Changing the American Dream Forever
So why are so many young people still so…optimistic?
It’s because 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.
Even pop group MKTO, who claim that their name represents “Misfit Kids and Total Outcasts,” provide a frank assessment of the American Dream in their song of the same name with lyrics:
Say goodbye to white picket fences
Say hello to palm trees and Benzes
We don’t want two kids and a wife
I don’t want a job I just want a life
Like many of my generation, we grew up being held to benchmarks and standards set by someone else in an attempt to force us to conform to some predetermined ideal- 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 eight months old? Were we able to identify colors by age two? Were we able to dribble a basketball by the time we were six? When we were 18, did we make a socially acceptable college choice? Of course our parents had our best interests in mind- they wanted us to meet all of these targets so that we could all 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 that, “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 the American Dream studies department 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 is slim to none for most and has become something of a kitschy urban legend joked about by young people sharing a single loft as they stack their Tupperware containers on top of Ikea shelving units and pray that they get called back for a second interview.
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 (one of MKTO’s American Dream lyrics even cheekily mentions that “Jack left Dianne 30 years ago”) 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 that my grandparents built their American Dream in crumble around us.
It seems that by the time we were old enough to buy a lottery ticket, we had become so collectively jaded that 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 up 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 neighborhood. The kids who were socially isolated sought comfort in finding others who were experiencing their struggle. Those who chose to express themselves through performance now had a worldwide audience and were no longer bound by the constraints of their bedroom. Several of my friends used the Internet to find jobs thousands of miles away- essentially providing them with a ticket to a better life- 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 and 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 they are so long as they don’t bring harm to others. 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.
Sure, we all want money, but a more precious commodity than money is personal freedom and choice to live life on our own terms.
Our generation isn’t much different than the Internet that played a role in raising us. We download information in the same way that we take from our world and 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 (or are) doctors, nurses, police, fire, and military servicemen and women, nobly saving lives in the traditional sense of the word. Some hope to be teachers and professors- inspiring future generations. Several will go on to have children of their own and hopefully raise them free of some of the constraints that we grew up with. Many aspire to be actors or musicians, entertaining the masses and providing a bit of 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 that 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%.
My dream is to be a writer. Last year, I wrote an article on CNN about not wanting children and I received hundreds of emails from people letting me know how much it meant to them. Knowing that something I wrote brought comfort and hope to others was a feeling far beyond anything that 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 that I’ll be able to mirror the collective aspirations of my peers- old, young, men, women, gay, straight- and in turn, let others know that they are not alone. We are all in this together.