A friend’s 20-something son shocked his parents with his post-graduation plans: He was moving to Southeast Asia to sell selfie sticks.
Millennials in a nutshell, #amiright?
But who can blame them for taking non-traditional paths, given the poor financial hand they’ve been dealt: record levels of college debt, uncertain job prospects, stagnant wages, and more. It’s why one in three Millennials is deeply dissatisfied with their financial situation, according to a much-quoted new study from George Washington University and PwC.
Findings from a recent Harvard survey cut even deeper: half of Millennials say the American Dream is dead. Yep, that cornerstone of post-war America—the house, the car, the upwardly mobile career track—is about as relevant to them as black & white TV. To parents raised on the mythology of the American Dream, that’s grim news.
But the situation may not be as dire as it appears.
As they’ve done with everything from communications to careers, Millennials are redefining what it means to lead a “better life” (something parents see as key to the American Dream, according to a 2015 60 Minutes/Vanity Fair poll). This new paradigm is rooted in the experiences of people who came of age after the financial crisis of 2008, and reflects how they see the world. It offers a flexible lifestyle (one that some might see as transient) and a reworking of the traditional measures of success.
Here are three ways that our kids will make their own American Dream—and thrive.
1. They’ll rethink what college means—and how to pay for it.
Two-thirds of parents say the American Dream includes sending their kids to college, according to a September poll from the youth media company Fusion. These moms and dads are right to think this, as college grads earn about $1 million more over their lifetimes.
For Millennials, cost and career aspirations are informing this major life decision more than ever (call it pragmatism if you want). Gone are the days of selecting a school based on its bucolic campus or dominant football program. Kids (and parents) want more value—and less debt.
That’s why it’s so critical to start the college cost conversation early—like 9th grade-early. Want an incentive? A start-up called Raise.me allows high schoolers—as early as freshman year—to earn “micro-scholarships” from over 100 colleges. Got an A in chemistry? Won the lacrosse playoffs? Volunteered at your local animal shelter? Each awesome achievement can earn your kid $500 to over $1,000 from various colleges. Even “mayor” of Millennials Mark Zuckerberg backs it: Facebook is one of Raise.me’s main supporters.
Best way to avoid the college cost guessing game? Fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid)—the key to scholarships, grants, work-study, and low-rate federal loans. The form is notoriously long and complicated, but it’s getting better! Starting this year, you can access the FAFSA on October 1, 2016 (up from January 1, 2017). Why the new, early start? It means you’ll be able to auto-fill the form for the 2017-18 school year using your 2015 tax return data. (More details here.)
Parents of kids who excel in hands-on environments can encourage them to consider the growing trend of apprenticeships (a traditionally European idea that’s catching on here in the U.S.), particularly programs offered in tandem with a community college degree.
2. They’ll understand that owning your own “home sweet home” is only sweet when you can afford it.
In 1986 (back when I was graduating from college!), 76% of young people saw owning a home as essential to the American Dream. Today that’s down to 59%, according to the Fusion poll.
That means your kid is more likely to bunk with you—or rent—than take on a mortgage she can’t afford (so don’t turn her bedroom into a home office just yet). If she does move in with you, make sure she uses this time as an opportunity to save! (And work out any financial details in advance with this helpful guide from eHow.com.)
Renting has traditionally gotten a bad rap, but it lets your kid explore—new towns, new jobs, new people!—without being stuck in one place. Take our selfie-stick seller: his Southeast Asia stint lasted less than a year before he was back in the states and settling into a new city and new gig. Like his fellow Millennials, he’ll probably rent for several years. Buying may not even cross his mind until his early 30s. A Zillow study shows the average first-time homebuyer is now 33, up from 29 in the 1970s. Of course, you’ll want to talk to your kid about the realities of owning a home, including how to sock away a chunk of money for a down payment once she’s ready.
3. They’ll value happiness and independence over a huge paycheck.
The entrepreneurial goals of Millennials can sometimes seem a little, er, lofty (like the selfie stick plan that didn’t exactly take off), but thankfully, many are starting to pace themselves.
A study from Upwork, a company that helps businesses find freelance workers, showed that 62% (mostly Millennial) freelancers planned to work a full-time job and moonlight on the side for two years before quitting to follow their dreams. Two years may not be a magic number (a specific financial goal would be safer), but at least they’re earning—and learning—prior to taking the leap.
Today’s young people aren’t all work and no play, either. Millennials’ drive for success, salary, and even entrepreneurial goals pales in comparison to their desire to spend time with family and friends, which they rank as “one of the most important things” in their lives, according to the Harvard survey.
The takeaway? We’re raising a generation that demands independence, flexibility, and a true work/life balance. Perhaps that’s the new American Dream.
Sounds like something we can all believe in.
How do you define the American Dream for your kids? Tell me on Twitter using #NewAmericanDream.
© 2016 Beth Kobliner, All Rights Reserved
Beth Kobliner is the author of the New York Times bestseller Get a Financial Life, and is currently writing a new book, Make Your Kid a Money Genius (Even If You’re Not), to be published by Simon & Schuster. Visit her at bethkobliner.com, follow her on Twitter, and like her on Facebook.