5 Things Parents and Teachers Need to Know About the New American Dream

It wasn’t too long ago that I was coming out of HS into college with the world at my fingertips. What I wanted then was a little different that what I want now. I remember thinking about who I wanted to be, what I wanted to be, and how I wanted to live my life.

Above all else I wanted to be remembered for making a difference.

Sure, I wanted a job. I wanted a family. I wanted a great life. But I wanted that life to mean something. I’m not sure that is how everyone my age felt, but I know for me that still rings true. Throughout the past 9 years I’ve taught, coached, talked to, laughed, and worked with some amazing young people. I’ve seen students do things in class that I never could have imagined: connect with students around the world, started social media campaigns for human rights violations, and create epic projects based on their own passions.

But as I got into more and more meaningful conversations with my students I started to see a shift. Their goals were much different than what we were focusing on in school. The same shift comes up as I’m interacting online and on social media and talk with my younger siblings…I see a “new” American Dream.

And I’m not the only one who sees it.

This new dream is being written about in newspapers, journals, book, and talked about all over television. But with the various views it is hard to make sense of it all. Here are five things every parent and teacher needs to know about the new “American Dream” as it portrays to our children and our students being raised and taught in this generation:

1. The New American Dream looks a lot like the original version

In a recent article, Kelly Goff writes about “The American Dream” and how it has changed definitions since 1931:

When historian James Truslow Adams coined the phrase “The American Dream” in 1931, he called it “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.” He added, “It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”

But over the years this definition of the American Dream has been lost. Instead, when we talk about the American Dream, we often find ourselves talking about marriage, children, mortgage debt, student loan debt, stuff, more stuff, and even more stuff (to fill up the house you owe the mortgage debt on).

Thankfully, the tide appears to be turning back in favor of Adams’ definition of the American Dream. A 2011 study found “a sense of meaning” to be the most important factor for Millennials in defining a successful career, even though “meaning” is not the kind of thing that always helps with a mortgage. Perhaps now that the American Dream as we have long known it is now out of financial reach for an increasing number of Americans, more will take the time to reflect on what the American Dream means for them personally, and maybe for our country as a whole in the 21st century.

What does this mean? Our students and children define success differently than we do…and therefore have different goals.

2. The New American Dream is not just about “College & Career”

Ask a student today what they want to do when they leave high school, and many students might tell you “go to college”…but if you ask them why, many won’t have a good answer. Is college just a place to have a good time, or a place to meet new people, or a place to prepare you for a career? To most of my 11th grade students college was an expectation…and they didn’t think much of it after that thought.

The real question is to ask them, “What do you want to do after college…or after you are done school?”

Sure, you are going to get some students who want to get a “good job” and “make money”…but most are going to say that they want to make a difference, and they want to start something.

How many parents and teachers wanted to “start something” versus “getting a good job?” This is a huge difference in how we think about goals. Our students’ actions in and out of school are going to change based on that belief.

3. The New American Dream is Mark Zuckerberg not Jack Welch

Our youth wants to build, make, create, and start…not “rise up the ladder”. I had a student once tell me, “If Zuck can start a billion dollar business in his dorm room, he can wear a hoody as a CEO, who cares.” My students saw the raw possibility of computers and the internet, not to only connect, but also to start movements and companies.

The issue I see is that we still talk and teach about computers and the internet as if they are a “commodity” instead of the most powerful creation tools in the history of mankind. 

Take for instance Kiel James Patrick. Him and his fiancee started the company KielJamesPatrick.com and make high end anchor bracelets. Maybe 25 years ago the only possible way this could support you and your life is if you sold them to local stores and eventually got a manufacturing contract with a big store.

Now KJP’s 130,000 Instagram followers buy up so many bracelets (and shirts as they have expanded) that they can’t keep up with demand. This young couple was recently portrayed in New York Times article, and is the epitome of the New American Dream. He didn’t go to design school (he didn’t go to any college), work for a designer or clothing brand, and then climb up the ladder…instead they started something out of their parents house, built a following online, and now have millions in sales each year (yes, your read that correctly).

How are we preparing our children and students for this type of dream?

4. The New American Dream is about the moment

In a recent Forbes article, Donna Sapolin discusses how different the views are between millennials and boomers in terms of planning:

They live in the moment, feel in control of their destiny and have a generally optimistic view of things. While Millennials regard the actions they’re taking now as important preparations for what lies ahead, they don’t find it easy to wrap their heads around life’s later chapters.

We’ve all heard that we are preparing students today for jobs that don’t yet exist. And that is correct…but think about it from the students’ side for a second. They now realize that what they are learning and doing might not directly apply to what they do next year…let alone 10 years down the road.

This “live in the moment” lifestyle doesn’t put family life on the backburner. Instead it allows our younger generation to be optimistic about their career path, their impact on the world, and the possibility of a family. They aren’t too worried about these things happening, and they aren’t spending too much time “planning” for the future. Instead they hope their actions now will impact where they end up later in life.

As a teacher and a parent this is extremely important to understand. Too often we focus on such long-term goals, that we fail to teach/parent in the moment. Every day, every lesson, every activity is a teachable moment and one that matters to this generation. Let’s not push them too far into an unknown future.

5. The New American Dream is evolving

As I write these words the “Netflix Generation” is rising up. They come into school with a vastly different world view than generations before them. To the Netflix Generation everything is “on demand”. What they watch, what they learn, and what they do…doesn’t follow a typical schedule.

How will the 9-5 job we’ve been accustomed to resonate with this generation? My guess is they’ll probably laugh at the notion. How will the “scheduled classes and activities” resonate with this generation…again they will wonder “why”? Why do they have to learn at the same speed, at the same time, and in the same way as everyone else…that’s just not how they deal with anything else in the world.

My daughter and two sons are growing up in this generation, and I know it will be a tough transition for them to go to school. My hope is that schools can think about how to best teach this generation by learning more about the types of learning these students already do…instead of forcing these children to cater to our current system. Why is this so important? Because we create and define our own path through our learning experiences…

This discussion is as important as any about technology or standards or curriculum…because it goes back to the “why school” argument. What must our schools look like and function to support our students right now, and in the future? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Picture via http://www.thinkerbelle.me/2014/01/the-american-dream/

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  • Great ideas A.J. I am seeing this more and more in the students I teach EVERY day! I hope as we create a new definition of what school “should” look like we can better meet the needs of our students. Keep up the good work!

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