The Old American Dream

Related to last Thursday’s post, I am aware of the source of some of the anxiety that I’ve been having about this move. It is rooted in choosing to live in a way that is different from the way that I was raised to live. I was raised in the suburbs. I have one brother. My parents worked opposite shifts so we never had to go to daycare. We certainly didn’t have a lot of money as a family unit, but I always had my own bedroom, even when we lived in a trailer. We went to Catholic grade school. We went on annual vacations (even if it was just camping most of the time!). We had plenty of toys. Plenty of stuff. We had very little awareness of what a struggle it was for our parents to provide all of this to us. In our minds we weren’t spoiled. We were just “normal.” Now I look back at what my parents sacrificed for us (They never had new clothes. They always drove crappy cars. They never got to get away alone together. Etc.), with a mixture of awe, gratitude, and horror.

At the time, mom and dad were just doing what they felt they were supposed to do. Get married. Have kids. Buy a house. Accumulate stuff; mainly for the benefit of their children. They were raised under the idea that their role as parents was to provide a better life for their children than the one they had themselves (even if it meant going into debt to do it). The American Dream. I still think that this ideal rings true; I think that most young parents still want to create the best life possible for their children. I hope so, anyhow! I just think that “a better life” is in the process of being redefined. The idea of “the good life” in American culture is very stuff-centric. There are prescribed steps that, when followed, are supposed to lead to success. Success is a nicely decorated house on a big lot, with lots of fancy appliances and electronics, new cars every couple of years, vacations, etc. In my parents’ generation, and for a couple generations before and after theirs, everyone strove for an approximation of this image of success.

My generation may have been the last where the majority of us were raised in some approximation of the American Dream. The middle class. We were raised to believe that the culture of stuff is normal, and even necessary. Now the middle class is disappearing. There are the rich (we’re talking Oprah and the like, here), the wealthy (aka, anyone that can afford to live the way that my generation was raised to live), the poor (what used to be blue-collar middle class), and the very poor (those that can barely afford, or can’t afford, basic needs like food, shelter, etc.). My friends and I represent the new middle class. Educated, but without any of the money or stuff that has historically been associated with being educated. We simply can’t afford it – our incomes are not commensurate with our education, or with the amount of educational debt we carry.

Roughly 90% of people I know in my age group (I’m thinking of a group of about 100 friends and acquaintances) went to college. A good chunk have advanced degrees as well. The majority of us are married or permanently coupled. At age 30-35, only around 5% own their own homes. Almost everyone I know still rents. We all buy our clothes at discount stores. Some of us have some fancy electronics, etc., but they are in apartments or very modest homes. Many of us are thinking about starting families, but are worried that we can’t afford it, particularly when we are so mired down with student loans, and aren’t yet making enough money to comfortably pay on them, live life, and support children. For us, the old American Dream just simply isn’t really available.

What I think, what I hope, is happening, is that many people, particularly in my generation, are readjusting their ideals for “the good life” to look a little less like their parents’ ideals, and a little more like their grandparents,’ or great-grandparents’ ideals. To be happy, we don’t need a lot of stuff. We can’t require a lot of stuff for happiness, or happiness would literally be impossible. We can still have families. We can still experience life. We just can’t do those things AND own a lot of crap. For many of us, it has to be a choice. I think that for those of us that are on the cusp of this change in ideals, the transition can be emotionally difficult. It has been for me, anyhow. It is difficult to be raised in one value system and to then adjust to another value system. Pieces of the old value system still come back to haunt you, as unreasonable as they may be. My old value system comes back and whispers in my ear that, even though I make a relatively decent living and don’t hate my job, I’m not as successful as I should be.

The reality is that I simply can’t afford to live the same way that my parents did, and neither can most of my peers, despite the fact that I took full advantage of all of the opportunities that they gave me; I took all the right steps. That reality feels a little bit backwards, and my emotions rebel against it (as do those of my parents). But the truth is that I know that the way that my parents ‘ generation, and the generations around theirs, lived has caused massive destruction on this planet, and in the health and well-being of billions of humans. I don’t really even want to live that way. The simple truth is: of course I can live in a small space and still raise a child well. Of course I can be happy and experience life in that same small space. Of course I can get by with fewer outfits. Of course I don’t need every updated gadget that appears on the market. Of course I don’t need to buy my children gobs of toys. Of course I don’t need to eat out all the time. And so on, and so on, and so on. My grandmother did it. Her mother did it. Everyone turned out just fine. Everyone turning out fine and happy is the true mark of success. Not stuff. My family and I will be just fine, too.

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6 responses to “The Old American Dream

  1. I thought I wouldn’t be able to afford children and then I looked to my friend who has a family of 5. He is the single breadwinner and makes about $15,000 less than I do–which isn’t all that much. If he can do it, so can we.

    As for the rest of it, I agree. While we have no student loans and own our own home (which is as modest as they come), we also have little money to spend.

    Now, I talked to my parents about this. They said that when they started out they had no money either and that I must be only remembering life as I was older. I need to pay my dues, like they did, and I’ll end up ok.

    As for renting… There’s your #1 problem. You are literally throwing your money, every month, out the window. You pay more in rent than I do for my mortgage and my money is going into a large bank whereas yours is going into someone else’s.

    There are many trade-offs in life and it sucks to get going but once it does, it only can get better, right?

    • ChaostoClarity

      I disagree that renting is my number one problem. I think that attitude is based on the Old School. My number one problem is that I paid more for my education than it ended up being worth. There are no guarantees that you’re not “throwing your money away” on your mortgage, either. What if your property value drops? What if when you are ready to sell your home, nobody is interested? Or the ones who are interested want to pay less for it than you paid? A lot of people are learning about that the hard way. Like education, home-owning is not the investment that it used to be (unless you don’t plan on ever living anywhere else).

      On the front end it might seem like I pay more than you do, but when you add it all up, I doubt that’s a true statement. I don’t pay property taxes. Renter’s insurance is only about $200/year, as compared with homeowners insurance. I don’t have to pay for repairs. I don’t have to pay association fees, etc. I just pay my rent, and somebody else takes care of everything else for me. Renting doesn’t just include the space, it also includes the service.

      • You do pay property taxes, they’re part of your rent. If you made less than $40,000 (or some arbitrary cut off) you could recoup them on your tax return.

        As for the rest, we’ll just agree to disagree 🙂

  2. I agree. . . I don’t see renting is the biggest problem. T and I bought our house 5 years ago when the market was great. For 5 years straight, we’ve watched our home depreciate. It’s depressing, considering we want to move to SW Minneapolis, but are “stuck” because we’d lose too much money on our home.

    My biggest problem is similar to your biggest problem. . . I paid WAY too much money for an education, and my paycheck does not reflect my fancy, private school education, or my Master’s degree. Sometimes I think about where I’d be with out school loans. Oh. . . how I love those dreams.

    Now on the topic of our parent’s generation. I feel a bit differently than you on this. I feel like T and I have much more than my parents ever did, and I feel like we are better equipped to raise a family, vacation, etc. (A part of that is because we are starting a family in our 30’s while my Mom was just 22 when she had her first child)

    I feel like the bigger issue is that people in our generation just expect so much more. For example, I live in a 2000 square foot rambler. It has 4 bedrooms, it’s a decent house. We like it. We have had SO many people ask T and I how we will raise the two little ones we are expecting in a home that size. The comment always angers me. My parents raised 4 children in a house the size of ours. Why wouldn’t we be able to raise 2???

    People these days seem to just expect so much more. They want bigger houses, more expensive cars, Disneyworld vacations, the list goes on. The fact that T and I own a home on a nice size lot, and the fact that our children will have their own bedrooms and clothes on their back. . . well, that is already more than my parents were able to provide to us. T and I both already have so much more than our parents did at our age.

    Now, if that student debt could just go away, our lives would be even better. 😉

    (And I apologize for the book)

    • ChaostoClarity

      I totally agree about the expectation piece – that people in our generation EXPECT so much more; and often don’t have the means to get it. It’s the expectation vs. reality that people have such a hard time with. If people could let go of those huge expectations, I think everyone would be a lot happier!= )

  3. Pingback: A Commentary on the Current State of Society « chaos to clarity

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