The New “American Dream”

As millennials have now taken over in the workforce, influence, and trends there has been a generational rift in the current status of the “American dream”

By Alexandra V. Maragha

The communal experience which defined American culture is no more with the emergence of technology and the coming of age of the millennial generation, giving a new meaning to the “American dream”.

The children of baby boomers have had the remanences of their parents’ experiences, values, and lifestyles trickle into their own lives, leaving for millennials to reject, accept, or blend those ideals.

Baby boomers came of age with print, radio, television, and film, leaving the dependency for communal interaction to remain present and thrive for information to spread; as “keeping up with the Joneses” was a necessity for middle-class families.

Mass media and propaganda dictated and satisfied the rise of a majority of Americans into the middle class and the consumerism that came with it; the propaganda of the “American dream”. The reality and hardships of life were hidden to carry on a communal experience and maintain an illusion of the idealism that the “American dream” was attainable and desired by all and for all.

Millennials have emerged into their own rogue consumerist generation and now that they are into adulthood, they are redefining a new “American dream”.

Perhaps it is most important to be reminded of the origins of the “American dream”. Writer and historian James Truslow Adams in his best-selling 1931 book “Epic of America”, described the term as “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.”

Since the ’30s, “equal opportunity” has been merely a hopeful term. Political and social circumstances and events have given groups of people this sense of an “American dream” within their own contexts; leaving “ability” to in most cases determine the limit of “achievement”.

Boomers lived first hand through the original movements depicting levels of affluence and social struggles where the limited economic and social equality of “ability” for many limited their level of “achievement”.

Millennials still face the same systems and inequality of affluence that always was in place. However, millennials merge the idealism of the “American dream” and the constitutional rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”, because their youthful optimism still allows them to believe that there is no difference between ideology and reality.

The Millennial Past

Millennials who were born and raised in the United States from parents who were born and raised in the United States have shifted Adams’ idea of the “American dream” redefining the element of “ability” and “achievement”. The days of being raised in the ’80s and early ‘90s created a sense of entitlement for millennials. Baby boomer parents worked to create stability for their families and children and left the children to be among the middle class of the “haves”, even if their parents and they themselves struggled among the “have nots”.

As technology progressed, the era of beepers/pagers, “AOL”, and cell phones emerged with millennials catching on quicker than their parents of how to use and keep up with this technology. Soon the symbolic materialism of the “American dream” began to shift for a teenager of the late ’90s to desire and acquire a cell phone before their first car.
The uses of technology and innovation shifted from the communal experience of living to share, to divide into an individual American experience, reflecting status and affluence.

Access to technology, the same as access to owning a television in the home during the 1950s and ‘60s, millennials experienced as well but this time with internet and computer access. A middle-class family could have a desktop computer with dial-up service to which chat rooms and instant messenger quickly became the way of continuing communication with equally-affluent friends after school. While their parents were busy working, children were left alone at home and “latchkey kids” further emerged. Gaming systems and internet groomed a new type of introverted youth lacking pro-active social interests, but now well-equipped with technical skill. Others who could during the ’60s and ’70s go home and hide their “achievement” or lack of wealth were now exposed by technology simply because they were not “online”.

By the time millennials entered college, they scattered off into the dust but at first, could be tied together through the emergence of “MySpace” and then “Facebook”. This created a divide of “achievement” to where the exclusivity of Facebook of initially only being accessible to those with a college or university email, left those who did not continue their education exposed and out.

By this time the internet was readily available as well as computers, but mainstream entertainment such as movie theatres, movie rental stores, and cable TV kept millennials as well as baby boomers living a communal experience. Likewise, the debut of reality TV kept this scope alive with shows like “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire”, “Survivor” and “American Idol” keeping viewers tuned in on a weekly basis. The interactive element of TV and entertainment merged with viewers being able to call nationwide to vote for a result of a show. The collective consumerism of the ’90s maintained the baby boomer bred propaganda of the ’50s and 60’s to where decades of trained movement and thought process now created the next generation for a what will be a watered-down dream.

Millennials Presently Paused

The middle-class millennial upbringing and self-focus on social life and expected privilege left minimal impact on millennials to now have the focus and ability as responsibilities of adulthood set in. What millennials are now “acquiring” are rent, loans, student debt, and ongoing financial responsibilities motivated through unstable means, rather than life partners, debt-free degrees in higher education, single-family homes, new cars, and any other type of properties.

Unlike baby boomers who married early in life, started families right away and went for the “American dream” of “what to acquire” and “how to achieve” such, millennials are settled and delayed in their youth mindset. The interdependence from the lifeline of entitlement which their parents created has left most to “acquire” and “achieve” traditional elements late, if at all.

As millennials furthered their youth and came to age with technology, their view of entitlement mixed with financial opportunity has now, years later, created a shift in consumerism and what to “acquire” in this new millennial “American dream”.
Millennials now have the technology of smartphones to match the fostering of entitlement to create an almost absolute intrapersonal experience, leaving communal experiences to become lost. A single experience for masses to gather and collectively watch, and have a generational or “American moment”, is now dissolved as anyone can watch “anytime and anywhere”, rather than all at the same time at home. Personal entertainment has become considered a necessity, rather than a luxury. Spending to “acquire” the newest iPhone rather than paying off debt is the way to express the prestige of “achievement”, according to perhaps both materialistic and financial measurements.

Millennial entitlement also creates competition for “achievement”. Millennials, while they seem to older generations lost and confused, are still competitive; when it suits them to be. The status of their parents living the “American dream” gave millennials a jump on their own expectations. Millennials want the position of CEO before ever stepping foot in the office building. They want the prestige of “acquirement” to carry on, and their downfall is not knowing how to get there on their own. Their “no child left behind” upbringing and education only takes most so far before the first hurdle makes the few or breaks the many.

With the aspirations of reaching the top before thinking about the steps to get there, millennials still dream like any other generation through entertainment and acquirement. Feeling like the CEO, while next month’s expenses are left for next month, the words “long-term planning” might only fall on deaf ears. So while dreams are big, there is little individual motivation to understand how to take action.

Looking Ahead; Future of Attainment?

The long-term stability of a career or the interest in having one sounds good, but the urge for change and for many millennials the boredom of a life without change is an uneasy thought. “Stability” is a term that is known as most millennials have always had it through the stability and support of their parents, but for themselves to foster and create it is a foreign word. Few millennials have settled and created a stable home for themselves, held a long-term stable relationship or marriage, or progressed in a career that pertains to what their degree is actually in. Rather, millennials start different “side jobs” as main sources of income over and over again. Jobs and careers in some fields are now designed as part-time positions, or contractual with little chance for the luxury baby boomers had at being at a company for more than 20 years and being set for life.

This, however, is not out of the blue. As the workforce has shifted to millennial take over, industries matching millennial target groups have reflected the scope of millennial interest in how they work and lifestyle. Most millennials want to change, as they feel it is “more exciting” and employers take full advantage of it. Companies have no problem hiring a millennial over a baby boomer because they are less demanding and when it comes to starting a job and jargon such as “benefits package” might not even cross their mind. Likewise, for those millennials who want the freedom of working “part-time” to maintain their social lives are not tending to their financial nest eggs because they are not the ones managing them; their parents are or bank credit is.

The false luxury of the “pick and choose” mindset has now created a shift in American culture, as millennials are now the largest generation surpassing baby boomers, in the United States. “Pop culture” is now spread with a faint paintbrush as the collectivism of a cultural experience is not defined by any one moment. Technology has led individualism to eclipse traditional values and “keeping up with the Joneses” is now “keeping up with myself”.

There no longer will be a communal experience where a generation will gather around a television, or even a device, to watch the same thing at the same time. It is the overall design of technology that no longer provides nor is created for a communal experience. Instead, the medium and materialism of the technology are what is “acquired” and the illusion of independent personalization and “self-expression” is what is “achieved”.

The new “American dream” has shifted far from what Adams intended for Americans; to rise up and above their initial stations they were born into and examine the means of what they value. Perhaps it is not a generational divide, but simply a divide away from the original “American dream.”

Perhaps this country has long ago entered into a time where inner questioning and value on values gradually diminished. Now, instead of self-expression and self- interest, the once depicted hope for an “American dream” of substance should be reflected on with self-awareness; with value and weight placed in the limitless potential of each human being.