Stereotypes abound about the Millennial generation and its naïve attitude of entitlement. As the popular media narrative plays out, young people, coddled by their parents and warped by digital technology, expect everything to come pre-packaged on a silver platter, right when they want it. Sure, research has confirmed some fragile and narcissistic tendencies among those born starting in the 80s, but to paint a whole generation with such broad strokes is missing the political and cultural subtext, not to mention the generational truths long neglected about what Americans really want and who can expect to get it.
“For the first time in history, the majority of American parents do not believe that their kids will be better off than they were.”
According to new research by The Stanford Center on Longevity, the problem of achieving traditional, desired life milestones, like home ownership and marriage, is not a new one solely attributed to Millennials, as is widely assumed, but rather there has been a stepwise decline since the Baby Boomers were 30-years-old. The data echoes my anecdotal experience as I listened to Americans respond to my latest book, The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream.
I was prompted to write the book, in part, by another fascinating and unprecedented statistic. According to Pew, for the first time in history, the majority of American parents do not believe that their kids will be better off than they were. It’s an opinion shared by rich and poor, men and women. To some, this probably sounds sad. After all, America is deeply invested in this idea of economic transcendence. But when I read that historic poll, it felt like a provocation. Better off based on whose standards?
I spent a couple of years reporting and researching what actually defines people’s quality of life, as opposed to the story we tell about what should or could make people thrive. Spoiler alert: there’s a big, devastating gap. As I see it: the biggest danger is not failing to achieve the American Dream. The biggest danger is achieving a dream that you don’t actually believe in. I argue that we all have to reassess where meaning, fulfillment, and joy come from in our lives, and get unapologetically intentional about creating more of that, not chasing after outdated or hollow symbols. The New Better Off is about rejecting the bootstrap delusion and instead realizing that interdependence leads to human flourishing. Or, in more simple terms: I’ve got your back; you’ve got mine. That’s the basis for the new good life.
When the book made it out into the world, radio and TV hosts and other journalists would often ask me, “Who is the audience for this book?” The obvious answer was young people—those, like me, just starting to get down to the tricky business of creating a bonafide adult life. But the answer always seemed shortsighted to me. As soon as the book launched, I was flooded with questions, provocation, and affirmation from people—not my age, but my parents’ age. It was as if Boomers had been living with these hunches about the American Dream since they embarked on adulthood but never quite had the language for it. The Milestones data confirms it.
“The biggest danger is achieving a dream that you don’t actually believe in.”
The first tragedy is that we’ve pretended that the American Dream was available to everyone equally, when in fact one’s chances of achieving it has been deeply determined by one’s race, class, and gender (among other factors). The second tragedy is that we haven’t adequately interrogated how dreamy the American Dream actually is—does the white picket fence, the “stable” job, and the appearance of the perfect family actually lead to health and happiness?
By now you know what I think. In some ways, I consider the recession the gift that forced us all to turn to this question soberly for the first time in decades. Over 5 million people lost their homes in the wake of the Great Recession. Homeownership rates have dropped to their lowest level since 1995. Americans, 35 and under, are buying the least: 36.2 percent, the lowest on record since the Survey began tracking homeownership by age in 1982. Over 50 million of us are living with multiple generations under one roof. Largely spurred by the downturn economy, it turns out, people actually like living with their relatives; more than three quarters of those living in such households say their relationships have improved.
So here we are, living a new reality, but too often failing to wrap real language around it. We still haven’t painted a compelling picture of what the new better off really looks and feels like, so the average American is left pining after unachievable, and perhaps more importantly, false symbols. Milestones found that the ideal age when Americans want to buy a home, for example, remains remarkably stable across generations; 30 year olds are aiming for the same timeline as 75 year olds aimed, despite drastic shifts in life expectancies, health, economic security, etc.
It’s time, not just to reform the systems that have so long kept people of color and women economically disadvantaged, but to tell a new story about the accurate linkage between money and genuine thriving. To be sure, the 14.8% of Americans currently living in poverty are not “better off.” We all, no question, need policies that protect us from exploitation by employers and financial institutions. The widening gap between rich and poor is anything but profoundly immoral.
And yet, too often, we talk about poverty as if it were a monolithic experience, about the poor as if they were solely victims. Part of what I’ve learned through my research and reporting is that the art of living well is often practiced most masterfully by the most vulnerable. Look to the edges—the people rejecting the notion that life is linear, reclaiming interdependence, and inventing new, more genuine symbols of the good life. That’s where wisdom worth listening to lives.