A group of think tanks, lead by the Pew Charitable Trusts, found that for the first time, men in their 30s are earning less than their parents. For the first time ever, this generation will not be more well-off financially than their parents. What should we make of this new finding? Does this mean the American Dream is no longer attainable?
Probably not. Because this statistic is just a magnified section of a much larger picture — of the great generational shift taking place in America since Generation X became adults.
The shift is in the definition of the American Dream. Our dream is about time, not money. No generation wants to live with financial instability. And we are no exception. But finances alone do not define someone’s American Dream. Especially when our dream is about how we spend our time.
Those who are magnifying a different part of the picture of this generational shift will tell you that what defines it is the inability of corporate American to keep generation Y from quitting their jobs.
The best of Generation X and Y are slow to move into the work force and quick to leave it. According to the department of labor, people in their 20s change jobs, on average, every two years. And Generation X is shifting in and out of the workplace in order to spend more time with kids. It’s costing companies a lot of money, and they’re paying millions of dollars a year in consulting fees to figure out how to decrease turnover.
There are many reasons for high turnover, but the most fundamental one is that baby boomers have set up a work place that uses financial bribes to get people to give up their time: Work sixty hours a week and we’ll pay you six figures. Generation Y will not have this. To hold out money as a carrot is insulting to a generation raised to think personal development is the holy grail of time spent well.
Baby boomers are also baffled by women who grow large careers in their 20s and then dump them in order to spend time with kids. Newsflash: Generation X values their family more than their money. Our American Dream is not about buying a big house, our dream is about keeping a family together. You can tell a lot about values by the terms that are coined. When baby boomers were raising kids they invented the term latchkey kid and yuppie we invented the terms shared care and stay-at-home-dad. The divorce rate for baby boomers was higher than any other generation. We can afford to have less money because most of us don’t need to fund two separate households.
The positive psychology movement has taken a large hold among those in generation X and Y. We are convinced that money does not buy happiness, and this conviction is rooted in hard science. More than 150 universities offer courses in positive psychology. It’s the most popular class among Harvard undergrads.
Our dreams are tied to time. So it’s no surprise that many of the most popular blogs offer tips for time management. And topics like productivity are favorites among hipsters who know that “getting things done” (GTD in blog-speak) is the key to having a fulfilling life. And believe me, GTD doesn’t take money, it takes massive respect for one’s time.
The new American dream is that we will have fulfilling work that leaves plenty of time for the other things in life we love. In this respect, Generation X is doing better than our parents: We are spending more time with our kids, and we are keeping our marriages together more than twice as effectively as our parents did. And Generation Y is doing better than their parents, too: They refuse to waste their time on meaningless entry level work because they value their time and their ability to grow more than that.
The new American dream is about time. It’s not a race to earn the most to buy the biggest. It’s a dream of personal growth and quality relationships. And, despite the declarations coming from Pew about unreachable dreams, our dream is not about accumulating money to do what we love at the end. We are hell-bent on doing what we love the whole way. That’s our dream, and we’re doing it better than the baby boomers ever did.