American dream has changed. It used to be a college education, a steady job, a nice house (and a family to fill it), and a better financial picture than your parents. There is a new American Dream that is still about “doing better than your parents” but not in a financial sense. This dream is about fulfillment.

Boston-based artist, Ariel Freiberg, just got engaged, and she and her fiancé are gearing up for this new dream. “We were brought up to think it’s important to own a piece of property. It’s how you build your life in this country. But buying a house is not a major goal for us. It is not what will make our lives secure and it will not help us define ourselves.”

“The idea of the American dream is taken out from under us,” explains Anya Kamenetz, blogger and author of the book Generation Debt. “There used to be a contract with employers — healthcare, pensions, predicable employment,” but today there are none of those guarantees.

Additionally, the cost of a college education is far outpacing inflation, making it more difficult to make this first steps toward the American Dream, according to Tamara Draut, author of Strapped: Why America’s 20- and 30-somethings Can’t Get Ahead. The average student loans come to around $20,000, which means $200 a month out of an entry-level paycheck. On top of that between 1995 and 2002 median rents in almost all major cities have increased more than 50%.

Hillary Clinton recently gave a speech about how “a lot of kids don’t know what work is” and young people “think work is a four-letter word.” These were not renegade words, but rather an expression of the prevailing attitude among her fellow baby boomers.

The boomers mistake a rejection of their American Dream as a rejection of reality. But here’s some news: Young people know that work is a reality for everyone. It’s just that everyone needs to work toward something; so young people have a new American Dream.

“The new American Dream is much more entrepreneurial,” says Kamenetz. “And it’s about shaping ones own destiny: mobility, flexibility to do your own work and the ability to have a career as an expression of who you are as a person.

Here are some things to keep in mind as you craft your own version of the new American Dream:

1. Cushion an entry-level salary with a move back home.
The first step in restructuring the American Dream is to save money to ensure flexibility. Moving back with your parents is smart if you can do it. Most jobs are in big cities, and starting salaries simply cannot pay the rent in those cities. People who are not able to get subsidized housing from parents are much more limited in terms of their early career choices.

2. Get comfortable with risk taking.
The new American Dream is for risk takers. This is actually not groundbreaking in terms of the American Dream. For immigrants, the American Dream has always meant risk-taking. But today young people are taking risks that parents would have never dreamed of, like playing contact sports without any health insurance and signing up for a mortgage with a freelance career.

3. Protect your time.
The American Dream of Baby Boomers came at the expense of personal time and family time. Success is not having more things than your parents. It’s having more time. More time for hobbies, for travel, for kids. “It’s not about how much money you have, it’s about living your life on your own terms,” says Barbara Stanny, financial coach and author of Overcoming Underearning.

4. Don’t assume personal fulfillment requires a small career.
Sure, the new American Dream has nothing to do with financial studliness. But don’t sell yourself short in the name of personal time. “Higher earners with balanced lives don’t work more hours, they are just more focused,” says Stanny. “To make more money you don’t have to work more hours. There is a difference between settling for a low income and taking a job to feed your soul.”

5. Buy as small a home as you can.
You preserve the most options for your future if you can buy a home on one income. “The advice used to be: always buy the most expensive house you can afford because it’s an investment. Today it’s different. Buy only the amount of house that you need so it doesn’t become an albatross around your neck.” says Phyllis Moen, author of Career Mystique: Cracks in the American Dream.

6. Make decisions by looking inside yourself.
Be aware of the tradeoffs you’re making. For example, big cities are exciting and filled with career opportunity, but you pay a high premium for living there.

When talking about her decision to stay in Boston, Freiberg says, “There’s a certain vibration living in the city that feeds me and my fiancé — this inspiration is something that we can’t get in the suburbs.”

Choices are difficult today because the new American Dream is not as measurable as the old one. You cannot look at your bank statement or count your bedrooms to assess your success. The new American dream is about fulfillment, which is a murky, slippery goal, but young people like Freiberg know it when they feel it, and you will, too.

25 replies
  1. Mark
    Mark says:

    The boomers went from ‘throw it all away and start over’ to, ‘How much do I have to make to get the car my Dad couldn’t afford?’

    I feel the 30ish generation realizes It is not about throwing it all out the window, but picking what is most important to you. This recollection from the old man in Gaddis’s last novella is a good reminder of what is at stake:

    “That was youth with its reckless exuberance when all things were possible pursued by Age where we are now, looking back at what we destroyed, what we tore away from that self who could do more and it’s work that’s become my enemy because that’s what I can tell you about, that youth who could do anything.”

    William Gaddis

  2. Andrew Goodman
    Andrew Goodman says:

    You’ve nailed it, Penelope. So many younger people are moving to cities and fighting to stay there, it says something about *their* values – which revolve around discovery and entrepreneurial spirit, not acquisition of the same old milestones & assets.

  3. Penelope Trunk
    Penelope Trunk says:

    That’s an interesting point, Andrew — that the financial fight Gen X and Gen Y are waging to stay in big cities is an expression of this new American dream.

    Hits close to home for me, as I am living in an insanely small apartment in New York City.

  4. amine
    amine says:

    american dream i want reach it and feel it, iam algerian i want to move to the usa, i know that iam able to do something great overthere cause i know my self what skills i have inside in me, and i want that my parents here be proud of me…but let me know can i apply for an american university and work hard ? let me know too the cheapest universities there

    * * * * *

    Hi, Amine.
    In order to get a university education inexpensively, you need to get a scholarship. You can find out from each university what you need to do to get a scholarship as a foreign student. Also, in some cases, it might be worth it to you to get into the university and then take out student loans to pay for school. A degree from a university might enable you to pay back the loans in a way that would not be too financially painful.

    Good luck!

    — Penelope
    Does anyone have other ideas for Amine?

  5. Dream
    Dream says: no no the american dream is much harder to fufill now. thats the reason “fufillment” is what the american dream is, but everyone knowss that its very difficult to have. Relationships can differ in those propagandas and the thing is back then it was easier to buy stuff but hard to work for. and everyone got married earlier at the age and had lots of kids. or most did, but if the cost of the past was mixed with how much we get paid now would set us for life but everyone knows that is very different and merely impossible for the U.S is too greedy and so is everyone else on pricing.

  6. Emprestimo Pessoal
    Emprestimo Pessoal says:

    These are great tips! Nowadays its not easy to get a high paying job, but then again, it never was. Living on a low budget or planning a lifestyle that you can maintain when you are single is also a little bit more difficult but can be a big advantage in more difficult times!

  7. JerryT
    JerryT says:

    I have a sign that says “What ever you can dream you can be”. After over 40 years, mostly in management, it’s hard to believe those words. I’ve never seen a time where dreams have been bashed so frequently. Our society struggles at every turn and our children have no role models or they are disappointed by the one’s they had. I love this country but I fear for its future. Our politicans have lost touch with what our country needs and it’s all about showing up the other guy. Greed, jealousy, prejedice and a basic loss of values seems to rule the day. Our young men and women in the armed services are sent off to fight rediclous wars. We need a leader that can set the course so dreams can come back to people of struggle. We need a ralley cry that brings us all together to make this the most precious country in the world. After all it is our home so why can’t we make it be the best that dreams can envision.


  8. Suz
    Suz says:

    This is a very thoughtful website. I really appreciate people’s comments and thoughts about the American Dream; it’s very touching and such an important issue, surprisingly one that I don’t talk about much with friends and family. There are so many important questions brought up on this site, that are on my mind but somehow hard to discuss with people. Life was gradually getting more challenging starting in my late 20s and it hasn’t stopped yet several years later. Many tough calls to face and so much uncertainty. For someone trying to choose and find a happy life, there are no guarantees that any particular path will bring you to that destination. Makes it feel impossible to choose confidently. I guess you have to go for what you want the most and see how it is and be prepared for change. Have some game plan but be prepared to amend as necessary, which is easy to write here, but would take confidence, resilience and courage (and solid relationships as a support).

    I’m really glad to read that Penelope Trunk loves writing and is making her living at it, that she reminds us that we make a lot of choices about life, consciously or not.

    Reading these last comments especially, it’s nice to know that everyone is struggling with myriad challenges in life. Sometimes it can feel like you’re the only one facing uncertainties, fears, etc. It’s important to connect with people on these deeper levels and issues. Thanks. In more casual/superficial meetings, it’s easy to start to feel like an age, an income, a profession, someone with this degree, etc. rather than a very complex human being living in a complicated environment. Thanks!

  9. Lois
    Lois says:

    I explored recently the issue of college in one of my posts. I live in a college town and have the unfortunate opportunity to watch the dreams of many of the graduates die quickly. They are doing jobs that barely cover their expenses in a field they didn’t attend college to do, or most importantly doesn’t require a degree to do. It’s really sad.

    I struggled to find work more than 20 years ago in my chosen field. My children learned from me and chose not to go to college, they are fortunate to have found work that pays well and they are secure in.

    Instead of going directly to college, I have believed a young person should go out and work for a while, then decide if they need college. Many employers will agree to help pay for college credits for advancement, so wait and see if you need that degree before you borrow to attend.

    One of the most surprising quotes I found stated that colleges argue that it’s more about enlightenment than employment. That’s a hefty price tag for enlightenment.

  10. video blogging
    video blogging says:

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