The New American Dream

When I was young, my friends and I spent summers pouring coffee for customers in little restaurants that had jukeboxes at the tables. We pumped gas on dusty highways, taught kids to make boondoggle at summer camp, rang up makeup and Maalox at drug stores, and saved our paychecks for our first Chevys or designer jeans.

It was a time when real people still answered the phone, and your windshield was washed after your tank was filled and the man at the shoe store measured your foot with a shoe horn.

We could always find a job because we were part of a world that was fueled by human interaction, and good service was the cornerstone of business.

Today, our young adults are competing for jobs with their parents. And not just jobs, but internships where your only compensation is experience.

Andrew Sum is a recognized expert on teen employment for Northeastern University. He says that proportionally, more kids have lost jobs in the past few years than the entire country lost in the Great Depression.

The recession has been a disaster for our kids.

Adults are competing for jobs that used to be relegated to a younger demographic, and it’s crowding out young adults. Just 27 percent of our teens found jobs last year, half as much as in 2000. Even jobs at grocery stores, ice cream shops and coffee joints are hard to come by these days-the kinds of jobs that were the staple of the teen summer.

Last year, I took a group of gifted kids to New York City for a week. They were young teens who were already taking college courses, and they’d spent a lot of their lives studying and preparing for successful futures. We were walking across Central Park to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and we had to stop several times on the way there because they were exhausted and miserable.

I could easily out walk them all, a fact that didn’t flatter me.

I asked them if they played sports, rode their bikes or walked to school. No one answered yes. The most exercise they got, they said, was walking up the stairs at home.

I imagined their parents surveying the world and deciding that the only hope they saw for their bright student was to make sure they were on the fast track to the land of the one-per center. Climbing trees and summer jobs were not part of the plan – not in a world where jobs are hard to come by and success is valued over personal health or youthful experience.

Were the parents of those gifted kids on to something? Should we be preparing our kids for the realities of a difficult, competitive world? Is it no longer OK to just let a kid be a kid?

Evidence is beginning to show that for the first time in the history of America, our children might not be better off than the generation before them. It’s a reversal of the American dream. Jobs our children went to school for or trained for are scarce, and almost one-quarter more young adults between the ages of 25 to 34 are living with their parents.

Thankfully, some Pew Polls show our kids are more optimistic about their futures than we are. Right now, 50 percent of parents say they don’t think their children’s tomorrows looks very bright.

What is the saving grace here? Evidence is mounting that this generation might not be relying on big houses or stuffed bank accounts to be happy. “Better off” might not be a question of wealth, but a question of happiness and fulfillment. And I can’t see a downside to a generation that puts less stock in materialism.

There’s a lot out there for our children to mine from these times-like creativity and out-of-the-box thinking. The kids who are making it are thinking of creative ways to stand out to employers, or they’re postponing immediate gratification and taking advantage of cheap travel and other novel experiences fueled by the ease the Internet provides. Some young adults are turning pastimes into careers.

What our children might lack in assets one day, they’ll make up for in culture. For the first time in history, the world is at their fingertips with an unparalleled opportunity to foster knowledge. Rather than teaching them to keep their eye on the big house and a life in the suburbs, maybe we should be teaching them to harness experience and opportunity in a world no longer defined by our old ideas of the American dream.

This generation might decide that the key to happiness is about enrichment-that the new dream is living a life defined by good relationships, rich experiences and learning how to enjoy and cultivate life.

It sounds like one day they might have something to teach us.