The American Dream Lives On

I’ve seen dozens of posts on the death of the American Dream.  You know, the house, white picket fence, dog and 2.5 kids.  The one where the guy works until he is 65 while the wife stays home and raises babies and frequents the tennis club and does charity work in her spare time. The one where at retirement they either have a fat pension, millions in the bank or perhaps both.   This is purportedly a myth, an anachronistic throwback to an earlier time, a time long long ago when dinosaurs and creatures known as Boomers ruled the earth.

The claims on the Dream no longer being possible center on a number of issues including high cost of college/student loans, lack of decent paying jobs, lack of opportunity to advance and a lack of affordable housing and tighter rules on obtaining house loans.  They are also sometimes portrayed as inherently less competitive in life due to being victims or poor parenting and the advent of the age of social media and digital overload.  So in short, against insurmountable odds  there just is no way they can achieve the American Dream the way previous generations did.

That is so untrue! Don’t get me wrong, the disadvantages are real inarguable truths.  But the idea that they represent some Great Wall of China impenetrable barrier is untrue.  There is a huge difference between something becoming more difficult and something becoming  impossibly  unicorn rare.

Full disclosure, I’m older than most in this space so I realize can’t use my own experience as proof that things can still work this way for you but I have lots of younger friends and three millennial kids that I can bring forth as expert witnesses because unlike me, they have current generation cred.  Since one of my side gigs is being an expert witness let me do this like we do in court.

“I call my millennial kids to the stand.”

“Raise your right hand, swear to tell the truth, etc.   How is life going for you, son?”

“Dad, it is going pretty great, I am heading to Tanzania in a couple of weeks for my last rotation of medical school and after that is over my wife is coming to climb Kilimanjaro with me.  I’ll be matching with my specialty in March and then headed off to six years of residency.  I guess we will sell our house since we probably won’t be coming back to the same city or maybe we’ll rent it to someone.  It took me awhile to decide on my career, I started of course in engineering and did that for six years while I put my wife through medical school and now she is doing that for me as I earn my MD.  We have some school loans but she makes great money and I will be earning at least a little soon so we are on solid financial ground headed forward.  Plus you and mom did teach us to avoid debt and invest for retirement so we are doing that as fast as we can.”

“Son, how much did Mom and I help you pay for school or really anything after high school.”

” Well Dad you didn’t pay for anything.  I had a free ride through college for my engineering degree and after that I was on my own.”

“Son, would you say you will earn more, save more and give more than I was ever able to in my life?”

“You’ve done pretty well Dad, but we will blow by you like you’re standing still in less than ten years, most likely.”

“Daughters?”

“Yeah Dad, you also didn’t shell out much of anything for our college and we also graduated with zero loans. Yeah, like bro we worked while in high school and college and learned to shop in thrift stores.  And we had free rides too including room and board through our four-year degrees because we had good grades and test scores. ”

“How did you get your advanced degrees after the scholarships ran out?  Did you rack up enormous school loans?”

“No student loans at all, Dad.  We both worked for the university to pay for our masters degrees.   We have good jobs, one with a pension.  One of us owns a house and one is renting but neither of us have any debt, except the house mortgage. We see marriage, kids and owning a house as near certain parts of our future.”

“I’ll call my last witness, Ms.M.  M you obviously have it going on for a millennial right now so I’m guessing you started out with rich parents, right?”

” You are hilarious, mi amigo.  I’ve told you my story on those many early morning six-mile runs we made together but I suppose you want these people to hear it from me.  Short version goes like this, at 16 I was literally starving to death in Mexico and in desperation ran away from home, crossed the river into the USA and started taking odd jobs.  I married and divorced from a bad man and ended up in your small town where I was working as a maid in a rich family’s home.  I had nothing, no family, no friends and no money.”

“Wait a minute M, you are now a Nurse Practitioner with four college degrees.  You are a wealthy lady, how did you get there in just a few years?”

“I did not really believe in the power of education but the lady I was a maid for nagged and nagged and finally dragged me to get my high school equivalent certificate and then convinced me to go to the community college and get my licensed practical nursing credentials.  I then got my RN, and then a BS in Registered Nursing and finally was accepted into medical school where I earned my Advanced Practical Nursing degree.  Along the way I married another Mexican immigrant, now a surgeon and a very good man, and we live in Florida.  Yes we are millionaires with no debt and yes we did all of that by ourselves with no financial help from anyone else.”

“So at the risk of leading my witness, M would you say you are living the American Dream?”

“Yes, it certainly feels like the American Dream, going from starving kid to medical professional.  From loneliness and poverty to a great life partner and wealth”

“I rest my case.”

And that is my version of why I think the Dream lives on.  No doubt it is just one side of the argument.  And, sure, it is tougher now than it was for me and my small set of examples do not adequately represent the millions of millennials struggling against odds I didn’t have to face. But the fact is most of the millennials I know, and I know a lot of them, are living lives that resemble mine at their age without a lot of obvious differences.  They have jobs they enjoy and are making nice salaries, buying houses and having kids just like their parents did.  And some of them like my, running amiga, can just drop the mic and walk away after they tell their story.  

10 Replies to “The American Dream Lives On”

  1. Hi Steve, I am older as well with millennial children. I think it is tougher now than it was for me, but I also think the standard of living has risen. It is very hard to compare growing up now vs growing up in the 80s. The American dream is still alive it just might not look the same as our generation. Which might be better. Great post !

    1. I think you are on to something about the Dream being better now. I don’t think my kids are as materialistic as I was at their age and they seem more socially conscious. However they are more stressed and anxiety prone also. If I had told my dad I was worried or depressed he would have looked at me like I was completely out of line. I imagine he’d have said “Life has nothing to do with being happy. It is about doing your job!”

  2. We’re older as well, but with no children. I often say I don’t think it’s a parent’s responsibility to fund their kids through college, especially if it’s to their detriment in retirement. Easier said than done, not being a parent.

    But you are living proof that if you raise grounded, ambitious, kids, the question of paying for their education need not even be explored. Well done! You’ve got so much to be proud of!

    1. We would have paid the cost to go to an affordable state college but we told them if they wanted to go to a fancy college that cost more then that difference was up to them. It was definitely nice we didn’t have to pay anything but we did give them some college savings as a reward. We also pushed hard for vocational degrees so we had one chemical engineer and one biological engineer who found jobs quickly. The third was resistant to brain washing but she did graduate summa cum laude in business with an emphasis on entrepreneurship. She also has a job that she really enjoys.

    2. >I often say I don’t think it’s a parent’s responsibility to fund their kids through college

      I definitely don’t think it is. I get the feeling that this whole “you’ve gotta save money for your kids’ college!” thing is just a big lie that has been pushed right alongside the “you MUST go to college or you will be a total failure!” lie that has been sold to kids for… well, forever it seems.

      1. I couldn’t agree more about college not being the only way to go. I consult sometimes and I was in a chemical plant in Texas a couple of months ago trying to figure out what was wrong with part of the plant and my field contact was an hourly union worker who told me he made $185,000 in 2017 and averaged $140,000 a year for the last six years. His job did not require any college.

        As for scholarship you’ve got a point. I was just calling it what they called it. In my case I earned too much to qualify for any income based aid for my kids but because the kids were good students and our state has a hard time retaining talent they offered academic free ride aid to all my kids as an incentive to keep them in state. So far two out of three of them have stayed in state so maybe that has a payout to the tax roles, I’m not sure.

  3. My kids are still little, but hopefully they follow in your kids footsteps.

    I can relate to the situation. I worked my way through undergrad and found a free MBA program in exchange for consulting with small business owners. It was an incredible experience I would do for free later in life (SCORE.)

    Fantastic job! You must be very proud.

    1. They are great kids but their mom was the real driving force to supply positive encouragement plus a watchful eye on their progress and volunteering at their schools. Used to be if you volunteered at the schools the principals would let you have your pick of teachers and so our kids got the best teachers which helped a lot. Plus they were all on the end of the bell curve smart but not genius level or anything like that. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  4. I think the millennials have it together more than we give them credit for. Look at the FIRE bloggers out there. They are pretty put together.

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