From American Dream to American Reality: Gen Y Coming of Age

If I were to have a conversation with my parents or anyone from the Baby Boom Generation about what the context of their upbringing was, you would likely hear stories about how they or their parents worked hard to achieve their dreams knowing that they had the opportunities to succeed as long as they were willing to work hard.  If you speak to recent immigrants to our country you hear similar stories of hopes guided by the notion of an American dream:  that this country offers a chance to succeed to anyone who puts their mind, heart and sheer intestinal fortitude into achieving their goals.
It’s an age-old tale of the American Dream:  a great job, a home, being able to provide for your family.  Streets paved with gold, white picket fences, land of opportunity and so on.
But if you ask today’s young adults what their outlook is, even though they may be fairly optimistic and entrepreneurial, chances are they don’t have the job they dreamed of as a kid and even though their parents might have good jobs will have witnessed a very different context.
I have done a fair amount of work studying youth culture for past dozen or so years and  before 9/11 there was still a very different mindset.  Young people were convinced they would all grow up to be millionaires, having grown up (at least until their early teen years) in a strong consumer economy where they had everything they wanted.
But then 9/11 happened and our peaceful, thriving country was suddenly shaken to the core:  bringing young people back to a sense of needing security and the comfort of family.  We saw a strong return to “family values” and need for personal emotional security.  But the economy was still doing just fine.
Then somewhere around 2007 the already bloated bubble burst and The American dream started rapidly unraveling, giving birth to a new American Reality – one that shook Gen Y to the core and changed their future outlook.
This generation has witnessed the collapse of political, financial and social institutions. They watched their parents lose their pensions, have their retirement savings depleted, 401ks crash and ultimately many of them lost their jobs.  Some lost their homes and life savings :  unable to pay mortgages, using college funds to pay bills and companies that will help repair your credit.  Students coming out of school were (and are) unable to get jobs and forced to live at home or rely on financial support from their already tapped out families.
A world where resources were abundant and they could rely on institutions to help them succeed turned into a reality of intense inward focus and self-reliance.  Gen Y may have grown up in a world where everyone got a trophy for participating, but came of age as adults realizing that in order to win the prize you have to stand out and do what you can on your own to succeed.  Then came the additional reality of globalization making the workforce even more competitive as emerging economies around the world started sharing in the talent pool – and at a much cheaper rate – commoditizing many jobs that young people in America might have taken as their entry into the professional world. So, instead of entering the workforce with their liberal arts degrees and making millions many are realizing it’s time to go back to school, create a side business or find another way to stand out from the crowd.
Rapid technology innovation has also brought unparalleled access to the world, social networks, and information and they have become savvy, tech enabled and informed.  Networking became a fact of life.  And to top off their already burdened psychological state, they also came see and here for themselves the state the rest of the world is in: from political instability to social injustice and beyond.  They started feeling the additional responsibility of not only taking care of themselves but being part of the solution that will help care for the rest of the planet.
The recession in general has also made an indelible mark on this generation.  Gen Y has accepted financial pragmatism as a way of life requiring them to manage their resources carefully, make smart decisions, balance needs and wants. and seek value.  They may all have expensive smartphones, but I guarantee all of those smartphones are laden with discount shopping and dining apps like Scout Mob. The art of discount shopping has become an online and offline phenomenon as many are now prioritizing paying off massive college and credit card debt so they can possibly start to save up for maybe buying a house some day if that’s even in their realm of future possibility at present.
But more than anything, the context of all the instability, financial crashes and hardships they have seen impact previous generations,  has created a new pervading priority for Gen Y:  Balance.  More than any other generation they have learned to seek a way to holistically manage their lives so they can find contentment in equilibrium:  meaning they want jobs that they are passionate about and are willing to settle for less money to do so.  They are willing to work hard but not willing to live for work.  Rather, they want a balance between their work, social, personal, family and civil society existence.  They seek purpose and happiness and fulfillment on many levels, realizing that the American dream laden in dollar bills is a false reality and that being a balanced human is the way forward – for them as well as for the sustainability of our human way of life.
So maybe it’s time the conversation started about re-envisioning our American dream, taking cues from the generation who come of age and the one to follow.  It’s a new world and a new reality.  But it doesn’t have to be grim.  We know how to make lemonade in this country and in our globally connected world, it can be a lot sweeter if we set our hearts and minds to it.
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