TIME Personal Finance

Millennials Put Their Surprising Stamp on the American Dream

Millennials seek travel and self-employment as part of their American dream.
Millennials seek travel and self-employment as part of their American dream. Roberto Westbrook—Getty Images/Image Source

Shaped by the times, Millennials dream about travel and self employment--and staying far off the corporate ladder.

Every generation puts its stamp on the American Dream. But none have re-engineered the term quite like Millennials, who mostly want to travel and not work slavishly for the man.

The American Dream has been part of our culture since the 1930s, and has at times referred to home ownership, a good job, retirement security, or each generation doing better than the last. Now comes a new young adult population to say it means none of that; the dream is really about day-to-day control of your life.

In a new poll, 38% of Millennials say travel is part of the American Dream, exceeding the 28% who name secure retirement. They identify the dream of home ownership at a far lower rate than Gen X and baby boomers. Meanwhile, 26% of Millennials cite self-employment as part of the dream—more than Gen X (23%) and older boomers (16%), according to MassMutual’s third biennial study The 2013 State of the American Family.

These attitudes make a lot of sense in the context of the era that Millennials have come of age. Home ownership? Many of them saw the foreclosure crisis up close. A good job? The rate of 16- to 24-year-olds out of school and out of work is unusually high at 15%. Many college graduates have taken jobs that don’t require a degree.

What about retirement security? Again, this generation has seen the retirement hopes of its parents fade with lackluster investment results and crumbling pensions. It seems the Great Recession left its mark. As a group, Millennials prize job mobility, flexible schedules, any work that is more interesting than punching a keyboard, and the ability to travel and be with friends. Millennials (11%) are far more likely than boomers (3%) to identify close friends as part of their family. To an extent, they are starting to get what they want at the office.

Many find this new worldview troubling. If a recent Millennial-focused Rolling Stone article championing a socialist agenda is anywhere near correct, the worriers may have a point. The author is looking for the second coming of Karl Marx “to grow old in a just, fair society, rather than the economic hellhole our parents have handed us.” He wants guaranteed jobs, government-supplied minimum income, real estate confiscation and more.

The argument is absurd and grossly overstated. But it points up how different the landscape is for young adults today, and the growing level of frustration that has emerged since the recession. A true American Dream has to feel attainable, and many Millennials aren’t feeling they can attain much more than a day-to-day lifestyle that suits them.

They aren’t alone, by the way. Some 45% of older boomers agree that the American Dream is slipping away—up from 30% two years ago. Boomers still cling to the old American Dream of financial independence (80%) and home ownership (78%). But for a broad swath of the population those dreams too are starting to feel elusive.

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