This story reflects the views of this author, but not necessarily the editorial position of Fast Company.
I’m 27, which means I belong to a demographic that government data and corporate research suggest is missing out on the American Dream. We live at home, change jobs every other year, and are unemployed or underemployed for long stretches. And make no mistake: that’s true of many of my peers. But while the obstacles we face are real—and unevenly portioned out—the statistics don’t capture the nuances of millennial life. At least not mine.
I’ve been a minimalist nomad for four years, freelancing in international project management for a variety of organizations that take me overseas. As a result, I’ve lived off the beaten path, in places—like Ethiopia, Nigeria, and Qatar—that few Americans even visit. When I’m not working for companies like IBM or Uber, I’m traveling through Asia or South America while making ends meet with my blog and coaching business; I’ll be based in Berlin for the next few months. I know this isn’t exactly typical, but it’s the type of 21st-century career I’ve built for myself because the old model is no longer as accessible or appealing as it used to be.
My parents are easier to put in a box. They’ve met all of their generation’s classic success indicators: They own a beautiful home they built themselves, my father has worked at the same company for the past 20 years and in the same field for the past 40, and they’ll retire debt-free in a few years thanks to careful planning of their 401(k)—all of which puts them ahead of far too many others in their age group today. They don’t come from money (neither have a degree and my father works hard but humbly in the construction industry), but they’ve been able to put down roots, raise a family, and build a life that reflects stability and responsibility.
It’s no secret that fewer and fewer Americans are finding themselves capable of doing the same, but I’m living proof that that might not always be a tragedy. Unlike my parents, who’ve come to accept my slightly unconventional lifestyle, I don’t plan on owning a home or a car. I don’t plan on working for one company for more than a few years—or even having just one career. Like an ever-increasing number of millennials, I thrive on landing contracts, freelancing, and building a client base on my own. Someday I’d like to operate my own business, but it probably won’t have an address on Main Street.
By my own humble standards, I’d say I’m successful, although members of Generation X may raise an eyebrow at that statement. I count myself fortunate to have a university degree, five years of work experience, no debt, and an income that supports me with enough to invest and save for the future, although it’s not necessarily locked away in a 401(k) for retirement. (I keep most of my savings in a local credit union, invest in hand-picked stocks and digital currencies, and experiment strategically with “robo-investors” like Wealthfront).
My success, and many of my millennial counterparts will agree, revolves around freedom of choice, mobility, and potential—a lot of which we’ve won for ourselves out of necessity. In the aftermath of the past decade’s financial crisis, we’ve had no choice but to adapt, and that inevitably meant rethinking our career values. Personally, I value adventure over stability, experiences over savings, and change over certainty.
I would be lying to you if I wasn’t occasionally freaked out by the realization that if I die tomorrow I’m leaving behind little more than some T-shirts and a toothbrush. But unlike so many previous generations of human beings, my legacy won’t rest on physical manifestations of wealth and achievement: passing land down to my sons, owning a prosperous farm, or building a home in the suburbs. In today’s digital age, where “wealth” can be generated from concepts as abstract as cryptocurrency, advertising potential, and brands composed of photo reels on Instagram, our legacies and successes are also increasingly abstract.
While we’re still a hugely consumer-driven society, my generation has birthed a minimalist movement, and there are more people like me out there than ever before: highly mobile, tied to fewer possessions, and tapping platforms (just like this one) to reach out to millions of people on a daily basis. People like me are motivated by ideas of success that are much less tangible, because we operate in a world that’s ever less tangible itself.
Our culture of immediacy born through technology is so often lamented. But I’m thriving in it. Unapologetically, I care about the here-and-now, and for better or worse, I’m not motivated to postpone gratification to old age. I’m passionate about developing and sharing ideas, being recognized as an individual (instead of being recognized for years of dedicated service to an organization), and influencing my vastly extended global peer group.
To me, achieving the American Dream is no longer about accumulating money and property but about using my resources to maximize my freedom and individual impact. No, I’m not so naïve that I believe a slew of social injustices, political divisions, and economic pressures can be done away with simply by a shift in mind-set. But I do believe this millennial-driven vision can move us away from the consumerism and material self-expression to which so many people’s ideas of success are still tied. In the process, we can generate a variety of inspiring ways to live and work.
When we broaden our definition of success, we stand a better shot at uplifting and empowering more people in the increasingly diverse, conflicted, stratified, and unpredictable society that ours is now becoming. Getting that right is the dream I’m striving for. What about you?