The American Dream for modern men doesn’t look much like it did for the men just a generation or two ago. From forming a family to defining success, the advice of our elders is often not just wrong, it is, sadly, irrelevant.
This is not their fault. How could they know that massive disruptions like the Internet, the housing bubble or even higher education would force our generation to completely redefine adulthood? But that is the reality, and it is up to us to not only figure out what the modern man looks like for ourselves, but start setting a more confident, enduring precedent for future generations that will help—rather than hinder—their own journey through adulthood.
Perhaps the most classic element of the traditional American Dream is home ownership. The imagery is so iconic it has become cliché: the manicured green yard, the white picket fence, a car or two out front and the top of an RV or boat peaking over the fence.
A house used to be the biggest single purchase a person could expect to ever make. That is why, although technically debt, a mortgage loan would often be treated as part of making an investment. Not only would a house provide the ideal setting for starting and raising a family, it was a status symbol, a source of security, a whole bevy of potential hobbies, and ultimately a source of equity in retirement (or an asset to be willed to the next generation).
Today, though, home ownership is far from guaranteed, and the potential appreciation of a high-debt purchase is depressingly unrealistic.
The number of Americans going to college has more than doubled since the mid-1970s, and risen even more dramatically since the 1950s. The average cost of an undergraduate education, in turn, has grown even faster, more than quadrupling at public schools and tripling for private institutions. The result? For most college students, their first encounter with major debt occurs right out of high school, when they take out student loans to finance college.
Holding down a job in college has become nearly as standard as joining a student club—not just for the real-world exposure, work experience, or networking potential, but to get an early start on paying down student loan debt.
And while real estate has at least a fighting chance of being sold at a profit later on, and in the meantime provides the utility of being a place to live, degrees are a fairly tenuous investment, Although obligatory for anyone hoping to secure a job paying more than minimum wage, any further utility is highly variable, and the practical lifespan of a college education can be much shorter than is commonly recognized.
In a fast-paced world and economy, skills, experience, and even knowledge can grow stale or outdated in a matter of years. A 30-year mortgage for a home is a lifestyle investment; any given four year degree is a gamble on the graduate’s ability to quickly secure a high-paying job.
The early and dramatic exposure modern students are having to and unemployment are driving many to postpone other hallmarks of adulthood, like marriage and children. What was once the status quo for Baby Boomers in their late teens to early twenties has now become a big maybe for Millennials well into their late twenties—and beyond.
Those born after the 1990s are also learning to divest themselves of material status symbols—like houses—more and more in favor of experiences that serve the same purpose. Bragging rights come less from trophy shelf exhibitions, and more from social sharing: live tweets from an exotic vacation, before and after photos from the gym or yoga studio, streaming commentary on the latest fad food (and associated prices) at the local designer grocery.
This change in social capital may be driven as much by necessity (financial, practical) as by a spiritual shift away from materialism; in either case, it is a significant step away from prior generations.
The cumulative impact of all these generational shifts is that the wisdom and advice today’s men might seek from the elders is woefully outdated. From their priorities to their measures of success and accomplishment, those who came of age in the 20th century are hard-pressed to model adulthood for those coming of age in the 21st. For the first time in American history, an entire generation is poised to fail to match—much less exceed—its parents’ standard of living.
For better or worse, those born into the Digital Age are tasked with redefining adulthood, gender, success, and the American Dream itself.
Photo Credit: Rifat Attamimi/Flickr