For generations, the American dream has been neatly defined with imagery of a large house, big bank account, two kids, and a white picket fence.
But that scene is shifting as millennials become the largest demographic in the workforce.
With economic realities reshaping the idea of success, many of us are searching for something more fulfilling than a traditional slice of the American pie.
An easy place to start is the price tag for a college education.
The robust messaging on the importance of a college degree energized millennials to become the most educated generation in the nation’s history.
But there was no warning in the campus brochures and prestigious school rankings about the burdensome debt obligations many of us would face before even crossing the stage at graduation.
Today, more than 80 percent of college-educated millennials enter their first job with at least one-source of long-term debt.
Employment is another challenge, as the U.S job market has proved to be rocky terrain for graduates. Older millennials had a hard time finding traditional corporate jobs in the midst of a historic recession and high unemployment.
Younger millennials are taking a different path, favoring social responsibility and career mobility over long-term contracts and company benefits.
At 27, I’ve now had more jobs (three) than either of my parents (two), and I’m hardly alone. More than 90 percent of millennials expect to stay in their jobs for an average of three years.
Prioritizing purpose is a key trait of the millennial workforce.
“Counting commas” on paychecks from Fortune 500 companies just doesn’t carry the same gravitas as it had for our parents.
Collectively, we place greater value on human development, autonomy and opportunities to lead and innovate over cushier perks and bigger bank accounts.
As a result, risk-taking is a big part of the millennial DNA, symbolized by the emergence of social media and technology companies like Facebook and Snapchat, and generally higher rates of entrepreneurship.
For millennials, the shifting sand of the American dream goes well beyond the wallet and workplace. We’ve become adept at dodging probing questions from elders about dating life — or put more succinctly, “Where are my grandkids?”
Baby boomers’ expectations for us to marry “early” are grounded in notions of the traditional family. But millennial dating patterns have proved to be anything but old-fashioned.
With growing acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning relationships, increasing economic mobility for women, less discretionary income and more experiences with divorced parents than any previous generation, it’s no surprise that millennials are postponing marriage and pushing back on the conventional family structure.
Some might mourn the fleeting vision of the American dream as a national tragedy.
But what I see, more excitingly, is an opportunity for our generation to redefine the boundaries of America’s idealistic white picket fence.
By refocusing our energies on socially and economically responsible goals and careers, we can make the pursuit of happiness a more inclusive and dynamic journey for the next generation of Americans.
Spencer Hardwick, formerly an institutional sales analyst for Goldman Sachs in New York, teaches fifth grade at the Ewing Marion Kauffman School. Reach him at email@example.com.