Is the American Dream that elusive for millennials?

GRAFTON, Mass. — After breakfast, his parents left for their jobs, and Scott Nicholson, alone in the house in this comfortable suburb west of Boston, went to his laptop in the living room. He had placed it on a small table that his mother had used for a vase of flowers until her unemployed son found himself reluctantly stuck at home.

The daily routine seldom varied. Mr. Nicholson, 24, a graduate of Colgate University, winner of a dean’s award for academic excellence, spent his mornings searching corporate Web sites for suitable job openings. When he found one, he mailed off a résumé and cover letter — four or five a week, week after week.

Over the last five months, only one job materialized. After several interviews, the Hanover Insurance Group in nearby Worcester offered to hire him as an associate claims adjuster, at $40,000 a year. But even before the formal offer, Mr. Nicholson had decided not to take the job.

Rather than waste early years in dead-end work, he reasoned, he would hold out for a corporate position that would draw on his college training and put him, as he sees it, on the bottom rungs of a career ladder.

This article was post in Tuesday’s New York Times. It follows recent college graduate Scott Nicholson and his ‘pursuit’ of the American Dream, but more specifically, a job straight out of college. As the article begins, we learn that Scott turned down a $40,000 a year job as a claims adjuster to ‘hold out’ for a position on the corporate ladder.

I realize that it’s a tough world out there for millennials entering the workforce. It just so happens that our college graduation dates coincide with the worst economic recession since the Great Depression. But what is the American Dream, anyway? And why is it expected that we have to live that Dream as soon as we enter the workforce?

First, Scott’s outlook into his own future is selfish at best, completely misguided at worst. Is this Scott’s fault? Probably not entirely. Scott’s family is middle/upper-middle class, his boomer parents have successful careers, grossing about $170k per year. They live in a nice, upscale Northeastern town in what I can imagine is a nice house. Scott probably grew up not wanting much and has no college debt (his grandparents paid for his room and board). Perhaps to this particular millennial, the American Dream is something that is inherited.

But it also isn’t fair for millennials to be compared to their Boomer parents. When the Boomers were entering the workforce, the jobs were there, college wasn’t a requirement for many entry-level jobs as they are now, and even then, college debt wasn’t drowning most Boomers who did attend college.

Perhaps the Boomers set the American Dream too high. Or maybe their path was paved just a little smoother. But it is up to the millennials to pursue their own American Dream. Could it be that it’s time to adjust our expectations, or is it time that we go about pursuing it differently?

I don’t think millennials are expected to find their dream job right out of college these. And as unemployment rises, so rises the experience that employers are seeking from potential workers.

Scott could be completely different. Perhaps this plays out very well for him. Maybe turning down that $40k job will reap great benefits for him. But to me, Scott comes off as someone who feels as if the Dream is something that is inherited, and that by the virtue of his work in college, he should feel ready to hold out for something better.

But Scott–and the Times–don’t tell the whole story, that most millennials don’t have that option. When student loans, rent, and car loans need paid, many of us don’t have the option to hold out and wait for a job on the corporate ladder. We take the job as an insurance claims adjuster. We start our American Dream by just getting by. And perhaps that is the inheritance that we’ll pass on to our children.


3 responses to “Is the American Dream that elusive for millennials?

  1. I think you’re exactly right. I would be thrilled to have a $40K/year job! As it stands right now I make $24K (but that’s what you get working in research…) but I can make my student loan payments, pay rent, and occasionally fly home to Wisconsin or Minnesota. Is it perfect? No, I definitely wish I made more money. If I wasn’t paying my student loans I’d have an extra $500/month, which I could save for grad school or for a house or a car or any number of things.

    I read somewhere that our generation is going to switch jobs more than any previous, so what does it matter if you take a “dead-end” job for a few years? Someday I will have my “dream job”, and that day isn’t too far away but I certainly wasn’t expecting it right after college. I consider myself lucky to have gotten a full-time w/benefits job basically right after graduation. Some of my friends still don’t have jobs.

  2. Good post, I found the article interesting certainly. I also found it all too real for me though as it hits very close to home. Like Scott, I too have been faced with the difficult regression of moving back home. I was unable to find a job after college in my “desired” field of PR an industry I even now question if I still want to get into. I worked some temp jobs but nothing permanent enough to stay afloat and thus was forced to move back home. Luckly for me, I was originally from Columbus. Some people do not have that option as they are from an area that is even worse off. Even now, I hold a good position as a scoring director for an educational assessment company. Problem is the job is temporary and work only comes every once and a while, so it still is not enough to be on my own.

    A problem I had with the article is what is the “American Dream” anymore? For most people I do not think it is the same “dream” that our grandparents had in the 1950s. Life was a lot simplier back then, and so were everyone’s expectations. It was a world where someone could work hard and have a house and a family and that was all that mattered. I’m not here to say “oh that is how it needs to be” I don’t think it should be, things have changed.

    I do however feel that for many “millennials” the expectation has changed about what it is to be a young post-grad. I will admit first hand I was guilty of this. But mainly due to what I was surrounded by. The “dream” has shifted from building towards the future to a “right-now” excess.

    As I neared the end of college I was lured by the so called “glamorous” life-style of the “young-professional”. This has become the “elusive” dream for many millennials now. We are bombarded by images on tv, and the actions of our counterparts. Long hours in the office followed by nights at the “fancy bars” downtown, playing with our fancy phones, wearing nice clothes. Basically living the college lifestyle of “work-hard, play-hard” except now more excessive because “we have income to play around with”.

    I still see myself on the outside looking in as people younger than me are finding “good jobs” right out of college. It messes with your self-confidence because the social norm is a very high expectation. I feel though that it is a factor of what is making many millennials selfish. It is hard to not feel like a failure when it is not quite working out. Truth is though, way more people are experiencing it not working out than are.

  3. Scott, you nailed this one.. What a good read this was! Sad, but true.

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