Millennials are dreaming a new American Dream
By Alexandra Petri
I’m a millennial. So I was startled to read in Tuesday’s New York Times that this means the American Dream is slipping out of my reach.
But perhaps my response is typical of millennials: Who wanted that?
Back in the 1950s, when the idea of the American Dream was reaching its zenith, there was segregation everywhere and women had to stand up slowly to make certain they didn’t whack their heads on the glass ceiling. Back then, to the best of my understanding, the Dream consisted of a stand-alone house in its own yard, a dog, 1.3 children, and professional success in a company that required you to wear a hat to work.
But stepping back from such specifics, the American dream, loosely defined, has always been to do better than your parents did. It’s not that our generation would mind that. But we’re coining new definitions of success. We are, as Al Gore allegedly said to that masseuse, “letting go of results.” We are moving back from the suburbs to the cities, taking lower-paying jobs, finding fulfillment in new places -- for instance, the online neighborhood, which didn’t even exist for our parents’ generation. The Internet amuses us, informs us and connects us to friends across the globe. Sometimes it employs us. I have a friend who works for something called Clicker. In this new economy, we can make up whatever words we want and then go to work for them. It’s very exciting.
This is not to say we’re not woefully, horrifically unemployed, because we are. In fact, our generation’s level of unemployment is approximately 37 percent, approaching what it was during the Great Depression. But we’re optimists. Even the unemployed man interviewed by the New York Times said that he was completely confident his job search would pay off at some point. That’s the kind of unshakably sunny outlook we get from being reared by what someone in the Times described as “Baby Boomers who lavished a lot of attention on their children.” We put the “Great!” in “Great Depression.”
Certainly there are people whose dreams still revolve around the idea of doing what their parents did, only better. But many Millennials have dreams that differ substantially from anything their parents would have considered the American Dream. We grew up in an era when people were defined by their jobs, when the answer to “Who are you?” lay within the confines of a cubicle or a factory or a studio. That is changing. People from our generation are more likely to move and switch jobs, less likely to see being, for instance, a waiter or a content flow manager as our defining characteristic. There’s more to us, we insist! Have you seen our blogs? Do you follow us on Twitter? Have you seen the YouTube videos we made of our cats trying to speak in tongues?
In a bizarre chicken-or-egg relation with the technologies that shape our lives, we define ourselves more portably than any preceding generation. Our favorite possessions are tiny and getting smaller. Our achievements and pitfalls -- even our photo albums -- follow us around online wherever we can access search engines. Unlike our medieval forebears, we don’t accumulate cattle and castles -- or, if we do, we make certain they’re virtual so we can take them anywhere. Mobility, dynamism, self-definition -- these are defining generational characteristics just as surely as our ability to type 140 characters and dispatch them all over the world without even pausing to breathe or think.
So the American Dream, as defined by the generations that preceded us, with its sense of fixity and permanence and tangibility, is something we’re trying to reshape. We may not have bigger houses, bigger carbon footprints -- or even bigger paychecks -- than our parents. But our lives are already, in some ways, wider than theirs.
At least this is what we tell ourselves as we sit poking at our iPads in our parents’ basements, tweeting ironic things to our widely-dispersed friends about how much we would enjoy living in an Apple store. Now if only we had jobs.
| July 8, 2010; 11:30 AM ET
Categories: Petri | Tags: Alexandra Petri
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