Throughout U.S. history, the American Dream has meant the ability to build a successful life through hard work and individual initiative. Yet every generation has a different vision of exactly what that means. For parents of the baby boomers, in the aftermath of World War II, the driving factor was just to avoid another Great Depression. That need inspired the prosperity of the 1940s and 1950s and allowed the next generation to aspire to goals beyond financial security, such as pleasure and self-fulfillment.
Like the generations before them, millennials have a version of the American Dream that is built on their parents’ legacy but at the same time distinctly their own.
The major goals of the millennials’ American Dream sound just like those of their parents and grandparents. They want to be successful at work, get married, have a family and achieve financial security for retirement. But their vision of what that looks like and how they want to get there is definitely going to change things.
They are determined to have families, but they won’t be having children or getting married until they’re financially and emotionally ready—a determination that applies to millennial women and men alike. Forty percent of them spent at least part of their early years in single-parent households, and they would like to avoid that for their kids if they can.
That said, they’re much more open than older generations were to mothers having jobs and fathers sharing childcare and housework responsibilities. According to the latest Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor poll, a majority of millennials actually think parenting by two-career couples winds up being “better for your family.”
Perhaps the biggest change in their version of the American Dream is what success at work means to them. It’s not about the big paycheck or a pat on the back from the boss. According to the Allstate/National Journal poll, it’s about whether they’re “doing something enjoyable” and/or “making a difference in society.” In another study, more than seventy percent of millennials reported wanting a workplace that feels like “a second family”—and as every employer knows, they’re more likely than any generation before them to pick up and leave if they’re not getting what they want.
Millennials see lots of room for improvement in the institutions they have inherited: a workplace layered with managers who create obstacles to innovation, a private sector that pays too little attention to social problems, and a federal government that isn’t doing its job, particularly in relation to two of their biggest issues, income inequality and climate change. That may be why they have famously tuned out national politics.
The good news is that millennials are idealistic, hopeful, and committed to making positive change. They are a lot more optimistic than their older counterparts that things will be better next year. And despite the fact that they got the worst of the Great Recession—high unemployment rates just as they were starting out, coupled with a wearying load of college debt—almost ninety percent say they are confident they will have enough money to hit their financial goals in life. They are more optimistic about the state of the nation than their parents and grandparents, and more likely than any other generation to say the country’s best years are still to come.
Maybe that’s because they’re looking in the mirror. Despite the popular portrayal of millennials as “selfish” or “entitled,” a Pew Research Center survey reported that their top priorities in life are “being a good parent” (52%) and “having a successful marriage” (30%). Coming in fourth and sixth were “owning a home” (20%) and “high-paying career” (15%). Almost none of them cared about “becoming famous” (1%). They want to be leaders in the workplace not only to make great things happen but also “to empower other people.”
Despite their economic hardships, they are on course to be the most giving generation in U.S. history. According to the latest Millennial Impact Report from the Case Foundation, 84% of them made a charitable donation in 2014, and 70% were volunteering for a favorite cause or charity. “I personally refer to millennials as the next ‘Great Generation,’” says Case Foundation CEO Jean Case, “because the degree of generosity that we’re seeing from them is quite impressive.”
Good values, an instinct for charity, optimism: The statistics clearly defy the millennials’ anecdotal reputation. Evidence suggests that the next great reinvention of the American Dream will be good for them and good for the country.