The American Dream: a Millennial’s nightmare

Rise of Student Debt
Illustration by Victoria Courtney

In media, society and everyday conversation, the American Dream hangs over Millennials like a wilted flag. I frequently hear older generations talk about ours in offhand generalizations: we aren’t aware of the world around us, we can’t function without our phones and we are lazy, entitled and dependent on others.

But I don’t think this is an accurate representation of America’s future. Society and the economy are in constant flux, but the expectations aren’t. These critiques are stereotypes perpetuated by technophobia, reactions against a changing society and the misrepresentation of younger generations.

By misrepresentation, I mean the double standard for young adults. While still in our teens, we must get a job, specialize in a skill, plan our futures and participate in “democracy.” These are all reasonable expectations for creating model citizens. However, the respect promised with adulthood often doesn’t come until we reach a level of status dictated by older generations.

In our culture, economic success earns you respect. Houses, vehicles, college degrees, family and jobs are valued. They’re symbols of the owner’s intellect, hard work and economic status — rewards of achieving the American Dream. If we don’t have these things, our society doesn’t value us.

This creates a near-impossible ideal for many Millennials. Time listed in “10 Things Millennials Won’t Spend Money On” almost every symbol of respect that is stated above. With housing prices currently 917 percent higher than in the ‘70s according to financial blog The Simple Dollar, this is not surprising. Also mentioned was the unlikelihood to get married, have children, own cable, invest in stock and be insured. In general, we would rather save and focus on careers. We’re called the narcissistic generation, but I see this shift as a desperate attempt to remain independent through the economic and social obstacles we face.

It’s a struggle to move forward while adhering to remnant institutions of the past. The Simple Dollar illustrated this in their article, “A Dose of Financial Reality.” A year of college tuition in 1970 was $1,207 — a price 14 hours a week on minimum wage could cover. But we live in a different century now. In 2007, tuition was 994 percent more. To pay for the same thing, Millennials would have to work 35 hours a week on minimum wage. But in ‘73, the college degree wasn’t as crucial to success. While high school graduates could work 72 percent of jobs in the ‘70s, this dropped to 41 percent in 2007, and continues to drop. To put it simply, minimum wage can’t support the American Dream lifestyle — but it’s still expected to.

Many critiques of our generation are rooted in past ones. It’s not difficult to understand why many of us don’t want to know about the world around us — we live in a period of war and recession. Professional news sources don’t target our age group. Our opinions on global or national events are considered naïve.

When it comes to politics, millennial college students are considered lazy and apathetic. However, there isn’t much voting appeal when Congress doesn’t represent our interests. According to CIRCLE, a civic engagement research organization, although 47 percent of college students voted in 2012, we’re currently only 19 percent of national voters.

I found these facts on my phone, because my generation lives in the Information Age. Don’t be ashamed for keeping the means to research anything and contact anyone in the palm of your hand. Millennials use technology to keep up with the rapid digitalization of our lives. We use it to learn about our world and network with other people. Due to an increase in college students, especially those of high-paying professions, connections — other than just a good work ethic and skills — are the most reliable way to get a job in today’s market.

We are expected to take responsibility for the present, when the past already determined our fates. So are we too dependent on others? Absolutely. But that doesn’t mean we’re lazy. Millennials don’t live in the same America our grandparents did. The Baby Boomers of the 1940s–60s were the richest generation in the nation, but unfortunately for their grandchildren, the majority of us can’t join the job and housing market right after college.

Millennials are told we must do this to be respected, no matter how many loans, unpaid internships and minimum wage years it takes to get there. So yes, we are the entitled generation. We believe we’re entitled to the American Dream because we were taught it was our’s. We’re the dependent generation, because autonomy was never an option for us. We’re told to just work harder to earn our voices. We’re told to grow up in the world the past generation did. But that world no longer exists.

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