Hillary Clinton is courting the millennial vote this week with a speech at Temple University, an appearance on “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon” and an op-ed addressed directly to the youngest voting Americans at Mic (a publication created by and targeting them). The essence of her message isn’t surprising: Vote for me, because I get how diverse and economically deprived many of you are.
As fresh as Clinton’s message feels, especially in contrast to the backward-looking tenor of Donald Trump’s campaign, it still hasn’t gotten at a deeper shift that millennial voters are experiencing. We’re rewriting the rules on what success really means.
The economic downturn compelled, if not forced, more and more Americans to question if we’ve been worshiping at the feet of the right gods. Is success a fancy job title, a bank account with more zeros, a manicured lawn? It turns out that none of those things automatically make you safe or happy, and some of them actually endanger your health.
To be sure, people need jobs. They need housing. They need health care. When these basic needs aren’t met — and for too many Americans, they aren’t — our quality of life is legitimately endangered. (And we are left vulnerable to manipulation by people like the blustery Trump.)
But beyond these basic needs, there is a whole slew of delusions about the American dream that millennials are systematically rejecting: choosing public transportation instead of owning cars, living in tightly knit communities rather than buying big houses, inventing freelance jobs rather than succumbing to cubicle monotony.
Which raises a whole host of questions about what this generation is aspiring toward, as opposed to boomers like Clinton. Two-thirds of parents do not believe their children will be “better off” than they are, according to Pew Research Center. It’s an opinion shared by rich and poor, young and old, men and women. But “better off” is a matter of profound interpretation.
Our real lives
How is this playing out in our real lives?
I was just minding my own business — sweating on subway platforms at 2 a.m. and dreaming about the person I would one day be, and then, all of a sudden, I was that person. Otherwise known as an adult. I had a husband (something that I never thought I’d have). I had a daughter (something I always thought I’d have). I had a job. Well, actually, a lot of them. I had no small amount of frustration when the teen next door played his music too loud on a weeknight (to be fair, I think it was pretty bad music).
And I had a problem. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to become an adult. Commitment doesn’t send me scurrying like it does some people. I believe in sensible shoes.
The problem was that I didn’t want to become an adult if it meant falling in line. I didn’t want to get golden handcuffs or laugh with my girlfriends about how sexless my marriage was over boxed wine. I didn’t want to let myself off the hook because activism is for young people or stop having wandering philosophical conversations. I didn’t want to get a good job, a house with a white picket fence, have 2.5 kids, and then just … go … to … sleep.
And as it turned out, the good job and the white picket fence was beyond my reach anyway —beyond the reach of so many people. When the economy plummeted in 2007, it robbed so many Americans, especially the young, of some of the experiences that, up until that point, were the cornerstones of a successful adult life.
Home ownership is at its lowest rate since 1995, lowest of all among millennials. Job security is becoming a quaint, old-world concept; the average person moves jobs every 4.4 years and only 1 in 10 belong to a union (down from 1 in 3 in the post-World War II-era). And for most US workers, real wages, after being adjusted for inflation, have been essentially stagnant since 2000.
Overinflated American Dream
In other words, when the economy crashed, the air got let out of the overinflated ego of the so-called American dream. I had been scared of what adulthood might do to the state of my soul. I might get sucked into chasing symbols of success, rather than creating conditions for meaning and joy and justice, but, as fate would have it, the symbols were outrunning everyone.
The most adaptable among us aren’t mourning, but re-evaluating. So many people are turning away from job opportunities that are prestigious but not sustainable; it’s estimated almost half the American workforce will be freelance by 2020, some voluntarily (attracted to the increased flexibility) and others by force (swept up in the wave of the gig economy). People are joining co-working communities in droves and researchers find they’re happier for it. Struggles over “work/family balance” are no longer women’s issues; even high-profile guys like Mark Zuckerberg are attesting to their desire to be present professionals and fathers.
People are rebuilding the village. Sixty million of us are living in multigenerational households and despite the dominant media narratives. The interest in and demand for co-housing communities has skyrocketed among people of a wide range of ages. Americans are reweaving the fabric of our neighborhoods one potluck and holiday party at a time.
Our current insecurity is inspiring us to return to some of the most basic questions: What is enough money? How do we want to spend our finite energy and attention? What makes us feel accountable and witnessed?
We’re pursuing the patchwork quilt version of the American dream — piecing it together, bit by bit — instead of worshiping the skyscraper reaching high into the sky. But lest I fall into the same trap of all those who idealize bootstraps, the “new better off” is not solely about making brave individual choices, but structural transformation.
Systems thinkers and agitators and designers, the kind of fed-up Americans who were really “feeling the Bern,” are asking: What does an America look like where all people’s basic needs are met, where more people have the luxury of making choices about the kind of work they do, the kind of homes they live in, the kinds of families they create?
Authorities that we used to rely on to guide us toward the good life no longer exist. The demographic makeup of this country is shifting in profound ways: Women are now essentially a full half of the workforce. By 2044, whites, the source of most of our most dominant and toxic narratives about achievement, will be a racial minority. Many of the straightforward paths have been bulldozed or grown over with weeds. The safety net has been torn. The white picket fence has been uprooted. The ladder to success has fallen down. In other words, as external circumstances have changed (globalization, recession, etc.), our internal expectations are changing, and that’s not such a bad thing.
Focus on rebuilding
The task ahead is to reject the lowest common denominator rhetoric of a campaign season hell bent on manipulating our sense that something valuable is slipping away, and instead open our eyes to what is being built.
Living in America, at this unequal, messy moment, can break your heart, to be sure. But it doesn’t have to break your spirit. It is so interesting, so fertile, so up-for-grabs. It’s disintegrating and reconstituting and recalibrating.
It’s up to us to make lives, make communities and systems and policies that cradle those lives, that we can be proud of. We can start by rejecting tired narratives about success and author new ones that are less about exceptional heroes and more about creative communities. Clinton herself acknowledged this sentiment in her Mic op-ed, writing: “Many of you have shared with me that it feels like you’re out there on your own — like no one has your back. It shouldn’t be that way.”
She offered to have our back in the White House, which is well and good, but it’s each others’ backs that we really have to have. The new better off is built through daily community, not political heroes.