“The American Dream” is a staple of the American socio-economic consciousness. It’s what many people base their lives and aspirations around. It’s that night light at the end of the tunnel, striving to live well for ourselves and our families.
Like all generations, you can’t paint millennials with a single stroke. However, while this group is often characterized as more interested in altruism than materialism, there still are many who still hew to that ideal of home, family, and middle class life. (Credit unions: think auto loans and mortgages.)
But does that mean the dream is dead? Or has the shifting economic and political atmospheres instead clouded what the dream originally meant?
The Meaning Of The Dream
For Rylan Burdette the American Dream has changed slightly. The 21-year-old mechanical engineering student at the University of South Carolina still wants the “basics” like a house, a car, and a steady paying job. But the house with a white picket fence isn’t as important to Burdette.
“A steady career is more important to me,’ Burdette says. “I’d rather have a steady job and live in an apartment.”
He also said that land was also important to him. He’d rather live in the country than in the city, and have the freedom to do what he wants with his property, Burdette said. But what it boils down to is debt, Burdette says.
“I like to avoid debt if at all possible,” Burdette says. “It’s just another thing hanging over my head.”
For Burdette, his American Dream isn’t so farfetched from the original conception. He wants the basic American “nuclear” family with property and cars. However, he says, the American Dream is not the same as it once was.
“Our values have changed with time.” Burdette says. “The ideal lifestyle 80 years ago isn’t feasible or desirable anymore.”
That’s because the lifestyle 80 years ago is based on an economic environment that no longer exists. In the 1940’s and 1950’s we had a major world war that kick started a new American economy and created a middle class unlike any ever seen before.
Burdette also said that with this millennial generation there is a higher amount of individualism, which is why there’s a lot of variation in the American Dream. Each person has their own variation of the dream; it’s not homogenous anymore, the USC student says.
The homogenization of the working class was another product of the 1940s and 50s. Many people lived in similar conditions: they had cars, a house, and families. The middle class greatly expanded.
Contrasted with today, the millennial generation, largely, has put off marriage and homeownership to their 30s or 40s. There’s more variation in this newer generation compared to the greatest generation and the boomer generation.
An Unorthodox Perspective
The American Dream means something entirely different for Raja Faraj. When I asked what that American Dream meant for him, he gave me this reply:
“For people to not be ignorant,” the new American said. “People just aren’t tolerant of one another anymore. It’s much harder to engage in conversation with people now.” I sat there for a minute, a little stunned at the answer to be honest. I had gone around interviewing multiple people for a couple hours at that point. I got into a rhythm of how the dialogue progressed, and Faraj pulled me back to reality.
Faraj is a Jordanian immigrant and came to the U.S. in his early teens. He is also a mechanical engineering student at USC. Faraj indicated that he still wants the material things commonly associated with the American Dream, but it means more than that to him. It’s more of a philosophy to live by, more like an ideal, he says.
Faraj also echoed Burdette in saying that with millennials there is more of individual-centered mantra, but there’s also something more to it.
The American Dream Today
If you go by the numbers then the American Dream isn’t looking very robust for the millennial generation. According to a Harvard Institute of Politics poll 48% of 18- to 29-year-olds thought that the American dream was dead. The same survey reported 49% of those surveyed believed that the dream was alive.
One factor that could point to this decline in the faith of the American Dream is the shrinking of the middle class. According to a Pew Research study the middle class is shrinking, and is now outnumbered by the upper and lower class combined.
And because of the housing crisis and the Great Recession of 2007-2009 the “median wealth (assets minus debts) fell by 28% from 2001 to 2013,” according to the same 2015 study.
With this loss of wealth, growth of college debt and decline in home ownership in the millennial generation, it is easier to see why the American Dream has declined.
However, just because the dream has declined doesn’t mean it has died. There are those millennials that still see the value of buying a home and owning big ticket items like a car.
Moultrie Ball in Columbia, SC, and Hannah Price in Tuscaloosa, AL, subjects in my last blog, are married, in their late 20s and own their own homes or are planning to soon. These millennials still took that financial leap to invest in a home, despite the statistics that say otherwise.
For some like Raja Faraj, the dream has evolved to be more of an ideal rather than a representation of material wealth.
Don’t let the statistics shroud your outlook on the American Dream. There are still those that put their faith in it, and strive to be smarter and better than the generation that precedes us. They also could make ideal credit union members.