The idea of the American Dream has endured through centuries of turmoil. Yet our country is inarguably different than it was even just one generation ago. To find out how popular ideas about the American Dream has evolved in our own lifetimes, we asked Fast Company readers to share how their definitions of the concept differ from those of their parents.
Almost 100 people answered our survey. They come from across the U.S. and span recent college grads (the youngest respondents are 22) to those in their 60s (the oldest respondent is 68, but none are retired).
Despite coming from four generations, some common themes emerged: No matter their age, respondents agreed that their parents had more stability; most don’t believe retirement is attainable; many delayed or decided against having kids; and most care about finding meaning in their work and making the world a better place (busting the stereotype that that’s something only millennials care about).
Here’s a sample of what readers of each generation said.
Gen Z (ages 7—23)
Chasing passions and pursuing equality.
“I want a career of passion, opposed to a career of stability.”—23-year-old bartender from Las Vegas
“My American Dream is to simply be happy, with maybe not a great-paying career, but one that helps me find personal fulfillment.”—23-year-old student from Jacksonville, Florida
“I think that for my parents’ generation the American Dream guaranteed having a house, children, and a long-term career. I think of the American Dream as having a nation that works for everyone from all social and economic backgrounds.”—23-year-old product designer from Minneapolis
Millennials (ages 24–37)
Pursuing fulfillment, paying off debt, and putting off home buying and having kids.
“My parents wanted to have a steady job in the city, have a nice house and some kids, and eventually retire on the lake in New Hampshire. I don’t want to have children or get married soon. We’re in like $70,000 of student loan debt total. How are we supposed to save up for a ceremony, a down payment on a house, all that stuff? I feel people my age haven’t been given the economic opportunities our parents have. My American Dream is paying off my student loans.”—25-year-old marketing associate from Newton, Massachusetts
“My mom came to the United States after marrying my dad, who is a U.S. citizen. I imagine that for her, the American Dream meant all of the things she had seen on TV. At times there is a dissonance between us about what it means to be American and achieving success in this country. She believes without fail in our meritocracy. Personally, the American Dream to me really means financial freedom. I want to be able to pay off my student loans before I start a family so that my children won’t have to have the kinds of debts I’ve incurred. I want to be able to use my vacation hours every year without feeling totally guilty about it.”—26-year-old MBA/MA candidate from Baltimore
“Having the choice to define my own version of success. The American Dream in 2018 is not one-size-fits-all.”—28-year-old consultant from Chicago
“Salary is no longer the definitive measure of progress and success. It’s a challenge for my parents to understand why my generation declines higher-paying jobs in favor of flexibility, time off, shorter commutes, and personal fulfillment. My focus is less on a one-size-fits-all indicator of success (more, more, more!) and more on my own personal, often qualitative measures of well-being.”—31-year-old consultant from Atlanta
“Quality of life over quantity of money. In other words: Smaller house, less stuff, richer life, more love.”—34-year-old from Atlanta
“I don’t expect to get to have kids or make more money than my parents. My parents are going to retire in less than five years, and I can’t even imagine retirement.”—35-year-old automotive quality coordinator from Wyandotte, Michigan
“My parents wanted the house, lots of kids, and great jobs. I just want to be happy.”—36-year-old from Long Island, New York
Gen X (ages 38–56)
Still paying off debt while focusing on happiness and flexibility.
“My parents worked toward a goal of retirement. To me, that’s no way to live. My American Dream is to be doing something I love so much that completely stopping just isn’t an option, but also with the flexibility to spend time pursuing passions outside of my career.”—37-year-old digital strategist from Denver
“By the time I am sufficiently financially stable to offer my children a decent life, I’ll be too old to physically have them.”—37-year-old research scientist from Rahway, New Jersey
“I believe the American Dream today is to simply survive. I cannot afford to raise children and care for my parents at the same time.”—38-year-old business analyst from Washington, D.C.
“My American Dream is beyond personal, it’s community-based and environmental.”—40-year-old scientist from Madison, Wisconsin
“What American Dream do you speak of? The one where I do better than my parents? My father was a truck driver and mom was a nurse. They are enjoying a nice retirement [with their] savings and pensions. I’m working part-time, literally scraping by after being laid off last summer. Three hundred job applications. Dozens of interviews in the past nine months. Can’t afford health insurance and rent at the same time. I will be extremely lucky if I can afford retirement.”—45-year-old consultant from Chicago
“My parents don’t worry one bit about Social Security or Medicare being cut. It’s hard to not be resentful.”—45-year-old freelancer from Denver
“My parents were the last generation that could have a company take care of them from start through retirement. That’s over. On the one hand, we don’t have to sell our souls to one company anymore. That’s liberating. On the other hand, people have to be self-aware, mature, and vigilant about health care and retirement security because ‘the system’ isn’t going to be there for them as it was for my parents.” —50-year-consultant from Los Angeles
As working-class Black Americans, my family valued ‘having your own.’ This meant having a viable job, owning a good running car, consistently having food on the table, and maintaining a stable home. Generational wealth was not in our lexicon, even though my mother and three of her sisters graduated from college. My definition of the American Dream is to have more choices. I have teetered between working-class and lower middle-class, yet I have lived abroad, lived in three different states, and I am watching my only child pursuing a PhD. I am in the thick of my American Dream.”—54-year-old academic adviser from Missouri
Baby Boomers (ages 57–72)
Seeing how the traditional American Dream didn’t work out, and redefining it.
“The old American Dream seemed to be based on [the idea that] if you do not go to school, get a good education, get that good job, etc., what will others think? Quite frankly, I don’t care. Lived my parents’ idea of the American Dream and hated it!”—57-year-old loss-control consultant from Wichita, Kansas
“I’m struggling to stay above water, not even thinking about ‘getting ahead.’ Still paying off loans from sending my kids to college and trying to recover from the recession, job loss, rising cost of living, and wages not rising at all.—57-year-old travel professional from Petoskey, Michigan
“I’m close to retirement. I’m married, have always had a good job, own a nice house, and had four kids. Yet I don’t think I’ve ever felt as financially stable as my parents. Will Social Security be there for me? Don’t know. Will my pension get reduced or eliminated? Don’t know. Will my investments sustain me or tank? Don’t know. I’ve worked for 40 years and would love to stop, but I’m nervous about the predictability of the future. I don’t think my parents had the same concerns. Once they had the American Dream, they had it. I feel it slip in and out of my hands.”—61-year-old educator from Troy, Michigan
“I believe my parents’ dream was to make their world, including the world of me and my siblings, a better place. My dream is to do well by doing good, to achieve a level of economic success that allows me to give back to others.”—68-year-old executive coach from Hoboken, New Jersey