The grandchildren of the mostly white Americans who lived the reality of this great solid middle-class dream inherited a very different world from the one their grandparents enjoyed or anticipated.
The Millennials, those born between c. 1980 and c. 2000, live and work in a world in which: employer-based healthcare plans are up for grabs; pensions are ancient history; secure long-term work at one company is rarely possible and often not desirable; and home ownership, if affordable, is questionable. Even that symbol of American freedom and personal power, the automobile, is not looking all that attractive any more.
Statistically, it is true that the dramatic change of expectations that accompanies these huge economic and cultural changes in our society belongs mostly to the children ( ages 18—36 ) of middle and upper middle-class white parents. Most immigrants, Hispanics, and Blacks tend to continue to articulate the goals and values of the classic American Dream. Nonetheless, the world in general and the U.S. world in particular in which they seek to make real this classic Dream have changed as have the paths to achieve it.
William Strauss and Neil Howe, the 'biographers' of the Millennials, have created several profiles of the typical Millennial adult which have been statistically researched. Millennials are less likely to identify with institutions; they are more likely to use networks ( and to change networks frequently ). Three out of four declare themselves to be religious, but they do not necessarily affiliate with an institutional church, though they often associate their spirituality with a religious tradition. And, as for the issue of the content of their American Dream, a whopping 75% consider WEALTH to be the primary goal or objective or value. The Millennials judge WEALTH to be THE TOOL to the achievement of their American Dream whatever its contents or values might be.
I am reminded of a cartoon in which two Millennials are sitting in the current hip Café-of-choice sipping their perfect espressos when a well-dressed obviously hyper successful young man enters to order his perfect latte. The one Millennial comments to the other: "I hear he's a real hot shot, on his way up to the big time." The other Millennial wryly quips: "He's over 40, isn't retired, and hasn't launched his own IPO."
My own entirely unscientific, informal, and totally arbitrary survey of Millennials over a period of two months confirms that the primary goal for most is 'to get rich.' This 'selfish' goal is complemented by two almost equally primary objectives: to do meaningful work and to make the world a better place.
One hopes that the Millennials don't wait until they are rich before living the other two values.
Another special quality I have found in Millennials is their wondrous ability to live with FLUX: to not only adapt to rapid change of technical tools and basic knowledge but to exploit it immediately for practical objectives, even idealistic goalsusing Twitter to effect social change and Youtube to reach vast new audiences with new as well as old art forms.
The Millennials were told they were 'special' and that they could do or be anything they put their hearts and minds to. When they graduated from college or graduate school or professional school and encountered the real world they found out that not everyone on the team gets a trophy, win, lose or draw. Some seem to have been broken by this failure of the world to acknowledge and reward their specialness. Some get cast adrift by dangerous rip currents of debt burdens and poor job markets. But a significant number seem to be shrugging off the uncertainties of the times and the impediments to their dreams to embrace the unprecedented opportunities spawned by our contemporary world of constant change.
The Millennials are prepared to destroy conventional companies in order to create new kinds of profit-seeking enterprises; they are prepared to destroy traditional education in order to create new forms of learning; they are prepared to destroy establishment politics to create more responsive and responsible government.
Let's hope they know what they are doing.
Nick Patricca is professor emeritus at Loyola University Chicago, president of Chicago Network and playwright emeritus at Victory Gardens Theater.