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.

TIME Children

The Millennials Are All Right

Young adults taking a selfie
Getty Images

Whether this is or isn't a generation of narcissists, it's hardly the first to be shaped by media

Toddlers, it seems, are taking selfies. And the trend is kicking off a new round of debate about how technology affects our children.

The fear for these yogurt-stained selfie-snappers is that they will start early down the road to self-obsession—narcissists in the making.

There is no question that technology will have a profound impact on Generation Z—if that is indeed what we end up calling them. Recent research found that almost 40% of children under 2 have used a mobile device. It’s unclear if those figures include dropping one in the toilet, but I know from personal experience that digital fluency comes at a young age. The 3-year-old son of a friend will give me two tries to execute something on his newest iPad video game before he gently takes it away and patiently walks me through the steps.

Some say that the interaction of social media and developing brains has created a generation of deluded narcissists. But most Millennials I know, while admitting to a certain amount of self-involvement, balk at the term. Narcissism is, after all, a personality disorder defined by all kinds of nasty behaviors: exploiting others, envy, lack of empathy and an insatiable hunger for attention. It’s a pretty judgmental label to hang on someone who might be happy with him- or herself.

Whether it’s a disorder or just confidence, can technology really have all that much to do with it? Maybe. But maybe not.

A growing list of studies collected by Psychology Today offer conflicting takes on the social media-narcissism connection. Among the findings: high-volume users of Facebook score higher on narcissistic personality tests; grandiose exhibitionism correlates with anti-social behavior on Facebook; since posters only post the best of their lives, readers of those posts tend to do the same; Twitter users score higher on certain kinds of narcissism.

Other research came away with different views: narcissism has become a social norm for young people and social media is simply a place to exhibit it; having more friends on Facebook had no affect on brain activity; Facebook builds self-esteem because it gives us the chance to present our best selves; because posting on Facebook allows us to examine ourselves in relation to others, it’s actually a tool of self-awareness.

Clearly there is a chicken and egg issue. Does social media breed narcissists, or have narcissists discovered that, with social media, sharing the wonder of their existence is not limited to small groups at parties?

Either way, social media is hardly the first technology to influence the psychological makeup of a generation. Walk back a bit further and you find the baby boomers and television.

“Everything the baby boomers did was based on what they saw on television,” says Douglas Gomery, a media expert and journalism professor at the University of Maryland. “They grew up as television grew up, and each had an impact on the other.” The symbiotic relationship started with kid shows like Howdy Doody. It progressed through the teen shows like American Bandstand. He says it was television coverage of Vietnam that pushed many to protest. It gave them live coverage of events like the moon landing, JFK’s assassination and Nixon’s resignation.

The baby boomers have had their ups and downs, but they ended up a largely happy and accomplished generation. Television didn’t ruin them.

The pushback on the rap against Millennials is that they are accepting, optimistic, and, rather than narcissistic, confident in their future. And odds are that social media won’t ruin them either.

TIME Internet

Oversharenting Victims Rebel: The Quest for Online Anonymity

Only 18% of teens say they share a lot online, and most prefer anonymous or self-destructing social media

Even if Millennials’ younger siblings in Generation Z were all mini-Anthony Weiners, we’d never have a clue how many naughty selfies they’re sending after SAT class. That’s because these web-bred munchkins are actually shaping up to be way more cautious online than Millennials.

New research shows that Generation Z favors anonymous or self-destructing social media over more permanent and identifiable identities on Facebook or Twitter, and they’re voting with their feet; some studies estimate that over 11 million young people have left Facebook since 2011. So before we know it, our ubiquitous digital footprints may look like more like dinosaur tracks.

And it’s not just about Snapchat, the blockbuster app that allows us to send an image and have it disappear seconds after the recipient views it. A whole slew of new apps and platforms, fueled by their popularity among teens, are capitalizing on the impulse to share content without the curse of permanence. Blink lets users share self-destructing texts and pictures with groups, Skim erases texts as you read them, and BurnNote messages can only be viewed a few words at a time. And some apps, like Whisper, go even further by guaranteeing that content can never be traced back to the user, because the user is completely anonymous.

Generation Z isn’t buying the notion that our online profiles are almost historical records of our online identities that must be fueled by a constant stream of comments. The Cassandra Report, released by the Intelligence Group, a consumer insight and research company, found that 55% of post-millennial respondents said they don’t like things that last forever online, and another 55% said they’d rather be anonymous than vocal. And 76% said they thought other people shared too much.

Jamie Gutfreund, Chief Strategy Officer of the Intelligence Group, said that teens are increasingly aware of the hazards of over-posting partly because their parents often shared pictures and updates on their childhoods without their consent. “When kids are born in the last 10 years, they have no control over the amount of information that’s available about them online,” she said. “The younger they are, the more aware they are of the value of their information.” And that self-consciousness seems to be growing as the kids get older — the 2013 Cassandra report found that 18% of teens say they share a lot about themselves online, down from 24% in the 2012 report.

MORE: Are You Guilty of “Oversharenting?”

But opting out of the overshare culture isn’t just about self-preservation, it’s also about emotional sanity. Implicit bragging on Instagram and Facebook causes FOMO, or fear-of-missing-out on whatever party, vacation, or Coachella road trip one’s friends appear to be enjoying. Dr. Dan Ariely, who teaches psychology and behavioral economics at Duke, says that FOMO is caused by fixating on what could have been. “Imagine whether you’d be more upset if you missed your flight by two minutes or two hours,” he said. “People say two minutes. Why? Because it could have been you who made the flight. Instead you’re stuck at O’Hare.”

So before we know it, our ubiquitous digital footprints may look like more like dinosaur tracks.Whisper founder Michael Waldman says that older social networks like Facebook and Instagram inadvertently reinforce the idea that someone, somewhere, is having more fun than you. “Facebook is a human highlight reel — people at parties, with friends, on vacation, looking awesome all the time,” he said. “This shiny, manicured view of the world was leaving my peer group with a distorted view of themselves and the world around them, asking “Why is everyone else’s life so fantastic?”

But Gutfreund says that Generation Z-ers are consciously trying to fight FOMO with a zen-like “JOMO,” or “joy-of-moving-on.” Young people are recognizing that “you can’t know everything, you can’t be everywhere, you can’t watch every TEDtalk,” and they’re getting over it. It’s part of a move away from a social network based on competition and performance, and towards one based on genuine shared experiences.

That’s what Waldman says Whisper is trying to do. The two-year old app is sometimes mislabeled a secret-sharing app, because all the users are totally anonymous and many people use it for public confession. But it’s really more like the anti-Facebook, trying to divorce the identity of its users from the content they post.

It’s like a social-networking version of PostSecret, the community-art project made of secrets scrawled on postcards, except that users can reply to each others’ secrets on Whisper, and reveal their identities if they want. The app is growing fast, with over 3 billion unique viewers a month and $24 million in funding over the course of 2013 alone. And it’s especially popular with young people; over half its users are under 24.

People tend to think of Whisper as an app for confessions, but it’s increasingly become just a way to post tweet-like observations without involving your real-life identity. Some Whispers are juicy secrets:


Others are cries for help:


Some are totally boring:


And some are truly weird:


True, anonymity is nothing new in the online teen scene– just ask all the kids who have been bullied on Ask.fm, the site that lets users post questions and solicit anonymous answers. And while most of the posts seem like something you’d read on the wall of a locker room (lots of people confess that they’re gay or that they’ve cheated on their boyfriend, or both) some people see the potential for Whisper to grow into something more than angsty slumber party fodder.

One of those people is Neetzan Zimmerman. Known in the media world as something of a traffic savant with an uncanny sense of what will generate human interest and rack up the clicks, the Gawker blogger attracted more unique visitors to the site than all his colleagues combined. So when he left Gawker to join Whisper earlier this month, it was considered a huge vote of confidence for the startup. Zimmerman thinks Whisper is onto something. “People are going to want to read this content, it’s fascinating content, and it’s addictive,” he said. “It’s like popcorn, people keep coming back to it.”

Let’s go back to it:


“It meets the demand for privacy and also the demand for a place to be yourself. And Whisper, by the fact that you’re completely anonymous, is both of those,” he said. “It promotes being yourself. Because it asks you to unload, to unvent. To put your real self on Whisper.”

And by “real self” this generation means an online self that doesn’t have a real name attached to it. Dr. Ariely says that the anonymity of an app like Whisper helps dilute the anxiety stirred up by other social apps, because users don’t compare themselves to one another in the same way. “For the fear of missing out, we need to think that we could have made it,” he said. “And when something is anonymous and not connected to us, we can’t imagine it could have been us because we don’t have the details.”

The trend towards anonymity and self-destructing texts will probably continue, because kids are never wrong in predicting the future (one second, let me just feed my Tamagachi). So I guess Millennial oldsters like me will one day gather together in a nursing home, pointing at our Instagrams with wrinkly fingers, scrolling through tweets in extra large font and shouting to each other, “who was Justine Sacco, again?”


Career Lessons from Gen Y

Businessmen meeting in doorway conference room Clerkenwell—Getty Images

Want a survival manual for the new economy? Pay attention to the kids.

Specifically, watch the millennials, a.k.a. Gen Y, who were born after 1981. Recently I moderated a panel discussion on millennials in the workplace. My preparation and the follow-up I’ve since done with experts and some of my own younger colleagues have convinced me that the rap on this generation — that they feel entitled and lack commitment — misses the point, which is this: In an era of “permalancing,” disruptive technology, and nonstop globalization, those of us with a little gray (or little hair) can learn some lessons from the younger set. Take these:

Expect to switch careers. The embrace of a multicareer work life is perhaps the most striking difference between Gen Y and older folks.

Author Neil Howe, who coined the term “millennials,” says that this is a function of neither their age nor their appetite for risk, which Howe believes is less than you might think.

Rather, he says, it’s because the seismic economic shifts that were occurring just as this group entered the workforce changed the rules.

As Dev Aujla, who wrote “Making Good: Finding Meaning, Money, and Community in a Changing World” and is a millennial himself, puts it, “The steady straight line that meant stability for previous generations isn’t guaranteed.”

You’ll need more training. This is the most educated bunch in history, and they expect they’ll require more in the future.

Howe says millennials understand the economy handed them lemons, so they’re developing skills to make career lemonade. “Credentialed training is very important,” Howe says, “partly because it is portable but also because it gives legitimacy within their organization.”

Focus on the experience, not the job itself. Many of your newest colleagues don’t expect to stick around long enough to climb the “ladder” we so cherish.

A millennial co-worker told me she thought “it might be interesting to work in TV for a couple of years.” Not that I ever felt that way, but if I had, I wouldn’t have said so for fear of limiting my chances to advance.

Don’t be an Eeyore. Millennials are optimistic and prefer to work for companies that articulate a mission to serve society.

Those who graduated from college are keenly aware they paid a lot for an education that doesn’t guarantee them a lucrative job. Ultimately, though, says Howe, they believe they will find what they’re looking for.

Consult your elders. Millennials like, lean on, and trust their parents. A lot. Brig. Gen. Lori Reynolds, who handles Marine recruiting, showed me a new poster that targets parents, not their children.

Embrace change, keep learning, be willing to start over, and find what you really want to do. Not bad career advice, especially from those who are so young.

And don’t forget, spend time with your parents. They still have lessons for you too.


More Money Friday Roundup: Refunds for Yelpers & the Best Tax-Prep Program

Personal finance from around the Web:

  • Posting a nasty review on a consumer review Web site like Yelp may do more than just help you vent your frustrations. You could score refunds or discounts from a vendor eager to get back into your good graces. [Los Angeles Times]
  • Editors at USA Today and CNET tested out TurboTax, H&R Block and TaxAct. TurboTax looks like the winner, but you can check out more in-depth reviews here and here. [USA Today, CNET]
  • Investors are suing homeowners associations in Las Vegas for allegedly charging excessive fines and other costs that accrued while homes were going through the foreclosure process. [Las Vegas Sun]
  • Do you like shopping at Amazon.com, Macy’s and Wal-Mart? Apparently, crooks like big-box stores, too. They’re among the most popular destinations for users of stolen credit cards or credit card information. [ABC News]

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