The world has not turned out as promised.
The American Dream has ceased to be about a steady job, a house, a white picket fence and a pension. Even as a child, my impression was that the point of life was more about having the things that you wanted and less about having stability and a good life. The Dream has become a mortgage that you can hardly afford on your McMansion, three cars, the flat screen TV, Gap credit cards and Macbook Pro . Oh, and being famous.
Well, wake up. We can’t all be famous. Nearly none of us will be rock stars or supermodels or reality TV stars or millionaires or ever appear on MTV. Credit card debt was, and still is, standard. Student loan debt is even more common and more massive. The Classic American Dream seems out of touch to say the least.
We, the “Millennials,” were told that if we studied hard, went to college, did everything by the rules, voted in the important elections and wrote letters to our representatives, that everything would be okay.
We were told a lot of things that didn’t really turn out to be exactly true.
I’ve held up my end of the bargain by writing letters and voting, since this is what they told me to do as a child. I have received a form letter in response for every single letter that I have sent. When I push further to get a personally written reply, they “respectfully disagree” and continue to do pretty much whatever they want, regardless of what is right or what their constituent (me) wants. In my experience they don’t read your letters. They don’t check your messages.
Their interns don’t care about your problems.
They never thought much about my demographic because they don’t think we matter. That’s the thing about youth voting – it has become a vicious cycle: politicians don’t have to pander to young people, so young people don’t vote, so politicians don’t have to pander to them. The thing is, in the last few years we have learned just how powerful we are.
When Rush Limbaugh attacked young women, we got angry and he lost more than 100 sponsors. Or that time that Dan Cathy admitted that his company supported confirmed hate organizations and Chick-Fil-A’s popularity took a hard nose dive. Student loan interest rates weren’t allowed to double and the most massive online protests in history prevented the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA) from passing – basically saving the internet as we know it. We are starting to get angry about the way our country is going and we’re taking our lives into our own hands.
I have fulfilled my own American Dream. I am able to enjoy a lifestyle that makes me happy. I am a high school drop-out who was burned out on a system that didn’t serve her very well. I never got my GED. I never went to college.
The system that I work within has afforded me the luxury and the access to information, books, the Internet, and I’m interested in learning, so I’ve been able to educate myself and bluff my way through life for the last 11 years since I left the less than helpful public school system.
I currently work for a non-profit, maintaining the bicycles for B-Cycle bike share program here in San Antonio. I feel good about what I do and I’m learning a skill that is useful and engaging. My part-time status allows me to take on odd jobs that help meet the ends and pursue my independent goals. I am able to support the things that are important to me.
I have worked with a small group of friends who love bicycling as much as I do for the last year to make this silly, weird, sometimes offensive art magazine called Broken Bones Zine. With this group I’ve been able to put together some community building events like the Blazing Saddles Alleycat Race back in April. I’m currently planning a Bike Prom, the first of its kind here in San Antonio.
I’ve also started a non-profit organization called Who Wants To Ride? We are connecting people in San Antonio who love to ride bikes, bringing awareness to the laws of the road, and advocating for both cyclists and motorists to obey those laws. We educate cyclists on their rights and their vehicles. We want to provide free written materials and mechanical workshops for cyclists of all levels of ability and knowledge.
A college education is not a requirement to be happy. Many of us have more than one part-time job, many of us learn skills to get by on and learn to make things. We are learning skills that can’t be outsourced, learning more on our own, without the help of institutions of education. More of us are entering the workforce without student loan debt to kill our ambition and drive, to zap the capital that we would have otherwise.
I have never had a car or driver’s license. I live downtown and work close to my home, so I am able to ride my bike everywhere that I need to go, which makes traveling an adventure. I live in a modest but comfortable apartment building. I know most of my neighbors pretty well. I live in a neighborhood where many of my friends live. I have no debt and no credit cards. I have accepted that a comfortable, content life is all I can ask for. It seems to me that more and more of my peers are adopting this same idealism for a sustainable lifestyle.
Watching the housing bubble collapse removed the home-ownership bullet from our American Dream list of necessities. We rent apartments and condos because we want flexibility and freedom. We want to be protected from the nightmares of home ownership, like leaky water heaters, busted air conditioners, and lukewarm refrigerators. The idea of losing half of the value of your home and losing your new carpet to a running toilet at the same time is just too much to bear.
I have found in my time on this earth that the key to happiness is realistic expectations. When we don’t expect the world to be handed to us on a silver, Bluetooth enabled, iPlatter it allows us to focus on things that actually matter, like being happy, living a simple life, and leaving this place better than we found it.
See, what my generation has figured out is that the full-time job with benefits and vacation pay in the area that we want to work in is of mythological rarity. An enormous number of college grads are unemployed or underemployed. Rather than whining about the loss of this Great American Employment Unicorn we came up with a whole new plan. We don’t mind working two jobs if that means that we get to do something that we love. We do all of the things necessary to live a life full of pleasure and meaning. Instead of being called the Millennial Generation, we should be called the Freelance Generation.
I know a lot of talented people who are in my generation. In my neighborhood there are painters, musicians, comedians, makeup artists, burlesque performers, gallery owners, chefs, stylists, web designers, jewelry makers, clothing designers, city councilmen, guys who make fancy hamburgers on food trucks, incense crafters, bicycle couriers and mechanics, and so many more unique professions that can’t be sent overseas. They do what makes them happy. Some of them have to supplement their income to keep doing what they love, but they are happy and satisfied with the lives that they lead.
The Freelance Generation is realizing that localization is the key to the future. We can’t sustain the way that the generations before
us have, living on oil and living in a disposable culture, where most people don’t think for a moment to repair something. No, whether it is a pair of glasses or an armchair, we are groomed to just throw it out and buy something new.
I’m not going to sign my life away. I don’t want a mortgage. I don’t want a car payment. I don’t want any credit cards. I refuse to spend hours of my day commuting to another side of town or another city for a job that makes me miserable. I am not willing to sacrifice the quality of my life for someone else’s gain. I am tired of being trapped by a system that has dismantled the middle class and hurt the most vulnerable members of our society.
My generation is finding a new formula for happiness. We have a new Dream and it is spreading. It’s a Dream, with room for everyone, and now for the first time in generations, more of us believe The American Dream can make a return to the actual, real, traditional values of hard work and innovation that is truly rewarded. We are learning the value in helping one another in our communities and neighborhoods. We are living lives full of meaning that are pleasurable to us. This is being truly free. The new American Dream is a sustainable Dream, a Dream that is for everyone.
After having an on and off relationship with this city all her life, Gem Abrahamsen fell in love with San Antonio the summer she turned 16. She is an avid bicyclist, serious foodie, voracious reader, humanist, lover of music and film, rebellious curmudgeon, and a founding member of Who Wants To Ride?, an upstart nonprofit that advocates for bicycle safety and education. She’s got lofty goals and wants to make her world a better place, starting with her hometown.