A few weeks ago I took to the streets of New York City to ask millennials what the American Dream means to them – a generation that came of age during the worst downturn since the Great Depression, burdened by record student loan debt, wage stagnation, rising costs of living and widening income inequality. But also a generation motivated by meaning – in search of work that aligns with their values, wanting to make a positive impact that extends beyond the bottom line.
The intersection of those lofty ambitions and harsh economic realities make for a unique interpretation of the American Dream – one that doesn’t follow the same formulaic structure made mainstream by Baby Boomers or early Gen X-ers.
And while the media interprets that deviation as some kind of catastrophic Gen Y character flaw, with ceaseless attacks in the form of antagonistic headlines and labels, perhaps it’s time for millennials to assert themselves as the largest share of the US workforce and rewrite the American Dream for themselves.
Always one to keep my somewhat audacious calls to action grounded in fiscal reality, I reached out to financial advisor and author Kevin L. Matthews II to get his take…
This isn’t our parents and grandparents economy anymore and attempting to accomplish their version of the American Dream is quite literally a backwards notion. Historically speaking, the ideals of the American Dream became popular in the 1920s and 30s from writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald and James Trustlow Adams — and even then it was heavily debated whether the “dream” was realistic or attainable.
Here’s what we do know: The American Dream was the simple idea that if you worked hard and got an education you would be able to move up the social ladder and live life on your own terms. Shortly after World War II, this came to include owning a home. However, most people during that period (women and minorities especially) weren’t exactly able to gain access to that dream.
And here we are today, arguably less burdened by social barriers — but weighed down by the rising cost of living, static salaries and astronomical student loans. Yet our goals often harken back to the days when our parents and grandparents could afford to live off of one salary, the economy was less global and student loan debt was a fraction of what it is today.
As a financial advisor, it is my job to help my clients define their goals for themselves — completely independent of what their peers may be doing — and give them a plan to achieve it.
I often use the refrain: “Don’t buy a pool when you can’t swim, just because everyone else has one.” I make sure their goals are based on what they want and not what other people think they should have.
To rewrite the American Dream, you need to ask yourself four questions:
What is truly important to me?
Why is this important for me and my family?
What am I doing right now to achieve it?
Am I on track?
If you can answer the first two, you have a solid and concrete goal, which is the first step to achieve any dream. If you’re taking action right now to achieve your dream and you’re on pace, then you’re currently living YOUR American Dream.
Currently, 48 percent of millennials think the American Dream is dead. Good — it has had a long and fulfilling life. It is now time to allow our American Dream to live.
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Kevin L. Matthews II is a licensed financial advisor, author and speaker that works with millennials at his company Building Bread.
“I would rewrite the American Dream so that everyone can live based on their own values — not those imposed by society. A life where people can live the way they want and contribute meaningfully to society. My dream is to build something of my own, with my own thoughts and creativity. How cool would it be if we could all do that, instead of just accumulate stuff?”
“Living a life that leaves you fulfilled and satisfied doing something that is aligned with your personal strengths and scalable throughout your lifetime, and living a simplified life where things no longer make us happy but experiences do.”
“We should rewrite the American Dream to focus less on what’s an ideal benchmark for all and instead allow it to be internalized for a person’s self-actualized goals. The traditional American Dream focuses on too many archaic gender stereotypes and settling for what’s “good enough”. Let’s start to embrace striving for more than material goods and consider emotional, physical and financial health as part of our new American Dream.”
“I would rewrite the American Dream to include an emphasis on personal finance and entrepreneurship, instead of getting a job where you work for someone else.”
“I think the American Dream is more career based now. It used to be that your career was the vehicle that allowed you achieve the “American Dream.” Now I think having a career that makes you happy and feel fulfilled is the millennial American Dream. It’s important to me that since most of my life is going to be spent in that vehicle, I’ve got to like what I’m driving! To me, achieving the American Dream is being happy with how I’m spending my time – whether it’s vacation time or working – and making enough to get by and save a little. ”
“I would rewrite the American Dream so that everyone can follow their own dream. Whether that be traveling more, starting a business, having a family, getting your dream job, or something else, everyone should follow their own dream. The first step would be for everyone to learn about personal finance starting at a young age, so that they are able to reach their dreams later in life.”
“The American Dream used to include homeownership, 2.5 children, a white picket fence and one stable job that lasted from graduation to retirement. I would rewrite that dream to include the dreams that don’t fit the mold of classic Americana. Because when you look around, the American dream has become more and more diverse. Millennials in particular are choosing entrepreneurship and choosing to live life now instead of waiting for retirement to travel and pursue dreams. Perhaps the American Dream now is a true awareness and pursuit of what makes you happy and not aspiring to a one-size fits all ideal.”
“For many millennials, the new American Dream means deciding what’s most important and building your ideal life and career from there. Maybe that means establishing a better work-life balance or experiencing day-to-day creative fulfillment. Despite all the challenges we’ve encountered, millennials have the opportunity to rewrite the American Dream our parents knew through entrepreneurship, personal branding, and lots of hard work.”
Something interesting strikes me as I reflect on these responses. Where traditionally, the American Dream has centered largely around tangible outcomes, like owning a home, with the work required to achieve those desired outcomes merely being a means to an end, these new definitions of the American Dream focus more on the work itself. They are driven first and foremost by day-to-day fulfillment through meaningful work and action, not someday “stuff”.
Now that sounds like something to celebrate!
To see the full Millennials, Money and the American Dream episode, click the image below. And to get started on your own American Dream, grab my free goal setting and getting workbook here.