The Changing American Dream


I can remember my grandparents talking about the American Dream. Get a good job, with reasonable pay, maybe even a pension, own a house and a car, and be able to raise a small family. Anything beyond that was ice cream on your cake. It was a dream, not an expectation. They just wanted the opportunity to earn it. Virtually no entitlement whatsoever. The generation that went before them were often first generation Americans whose parents came to America seeking a better life so it was this generation that first defined the American Dream.

But damn, that definition of the American dream is old, with a capital O.

My parents and most of yours were Boomers with Traditionalist qualities. They weren’t satisfied with the meager American Dream defined by their parents. So they upped the ante. Bigger house, bigger family, bigger car and a bigger paycheck to pay for it all. Maybe even a camper, RV, second home, motorcycle, and a pet or two. It was all about keeping up with the Jones’. But our parents generation were still willing to work for it. Perhaps a little more entitlement but generally this generation would work long hours to earn that big lifestyle. Live to work not necessarily work to live.

And now my generation. Along comes Gen X, learning from what they saw happen to their parents. Lots of stuff, but not enough happiness. An enviable work ethic but for what reason? Suddenly there had to be a purpose behind our work, it wasn’t just all about the money. So the American Dream shifted once more. Our version of the American Dream? Retire at 50, the ability to send all our kids to college and pay for it, a diversified financial portfolio, real estate “investments” like a lake house, a hot tub, boat or both, and lots of world wide travel to keep the neighbors envious. Certainly more entitlement and expectation that life owed us these things. And if we didn’t achieve them then we got screwed – by your ex-spouses (divorces are expensive and even more so when plural), our former employers, the government or the stock market.

Now I’m looking into the eyes of my kids. Imagining what they believe is the American Dream. If you have kids who are young adults I encourage you to ask them. Put their responses in the comments. What is their American Dream? Hold my beer and let me answer that question for them. In a snarky, Dad rant, “spoiled rotten kids” sort of way.

They are the most entitled, by far. And I’m afraid as parents we are as much to blame as they are. We sent them to the best schools, paid for club sports and activities, took them on European vacations, and taught them to enjoy the finer things in life. They’ve always had a phone, a computer and technology that would make a 70’s Bill Gates or Steve Jobs jealous. They live in the greatest country in the world. They go to concerts, wear designer clothes, grew up taking lavish vacations and took spring break trips to the Bahamas, Mexico or “low key” Florida. We gave them a car the second they were able to drive, even if they preferred to Uber. And often the car they received was our hand-me-down BMW, Mercedes or a ghastly Nissan (their version of roughing it).

For them the American Dream isn’t about stuff it’s about experience. Why? Because we gave them all the stuff without hesitation. And so their focus turned to the world owing them a great ride. Long gone are the days when the opportunity to obtain these experiences through hard work and perseverance was enough. Where grit and determination is what determined whether you achieved the American Dream or not. As parents of this generation we just handed them the keys to the kingdom. And yet, I personally shrug my shoulders when my kids don’t seem to appreciate how hard I had to work to provide these “opportunities” for them.

I’m hoping that I have multiple generations reading this post. And that each one of you take a minute or two to hit me up in the comments to tell me where I’m right, and where I’m completely and utterly full of shit. Perhaps my perspective and experience is myopic. Or just plain pessimistic. But whether right or wrong, it is my perspective.

I don’t question whether my kids and their generation will do great things. They will accomplish things that no generation before them has. Live on the moon, find a cure for cancer, bring world peace and be much softer and kinder to our environment. I also hope they find a way to take care of the elderly too (a selfish request).

But the first thing they need to do is realize that the world doesn’t owe them anything. That hard work (or inheritance) is and always has been the path to obtaining the American Dream. And if they aren’t fortunate enough to be getting the latter (like my kids) then they best quit trying to “find themselves” and embark on the journey of hardening the f*** up and getting to work. Just like the many generations before you did.

No one is going to hand over the American Dream like your parents have. In fact, the rest of the world is coming for you. As parents we can help. Help our kids by demanding that they develop self-sufficiency. Self-sufficiency crafted by grit and good old-fashioned hard work.

And if this generation that we raised doesn’t rise to the challenge? First, I think they will. But if they don’t, well then the Dream will shift somewhere else to a country and generation that’s less entitled and more willing to work for it.


Ed Baldwin
Ed’s a career HR front man who’s advised business owners and the C-suite on developing great cultures and inspiring work environments since the profession was called “personnel.” Yeah, that makes him seasoned but also quick to call out the fluffy HR theoretical crap from HR strategies that actually work.

His versatility has taken him all over the world, continually acquiring knowledge of how to build a great company through innovative HR practices, learning mostly from real world experience and his own mistakes.

He’s the founder of HRO Partners, a HR consulting firm that specializes in guiding leaders on what they need and don’t need from HR for their business.

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