The American Dream is a central tenet of our society –– if you work hard and make sacrifices in this country, you’ll eventually see the fruits of your labor.
This was ingrained in each of us from a young age and was repeated over and over with only slight variation. Your mom begged you to “do your homework.” Your teachers told you to “go to college.” Your boss asked you to put in extra hours. And someone along the line probably convinced you that it would all be worth it when you’re sitting in that corner office. Until that day comes, you’re told to keep climbing the corporate ladder.
But have you ever thought about where it would lead?
In many ways, the idea of an American Dream holds weight. The United States stands apart for its cultural emphasis on labor and effort. And while being driven by hard work will almost undoubtedly lead to socioeconomic advancement, it won’t necessarily give someone purpose.
Sure, I might enjoy a fulfilling retirement when I reach the age of 65, but what will be said of the years it took to get there? What else am I working toward?
Something to work toward
These were the questions I was asking myself when choosing the path of my career—questions which we, for some reason, place on the shoulders of not fully developed adolescents.
For the longest time, I had my eyes set on working at a Chicago-based PR firm that would earn me a starting salary that was greater than both of my parents combined. I wanted it so badly. I took the right classes, got the right grades, and even made relationships with a downtown college that would give me my “in.” The American Dream was working marvelously for this middle-class Indiana boy.
So why wasn’t I feeling any sense of fulfillment?
Something to believe in
Everything changed for me on a college tour of George Washington University (GW) in the summer of 2017. Affixed only five blocks away from the White House, my first impression of the school was that everyone had a purpose and was driven by something greater than themselves. Their excitement for what they studied was palpable, and I could tell that spending four years here would inspire me to feel the same.
I quickly learned that it was devout patriotism that was the common thread that bound them all together. They shared a profound belief in the importance of building a more perfect union that allowed Americans of all backgrounds to prosper.
People at GW didn’t react to societal changes with fear but instead leaned into the momentum of inclusion. I soon learned that many approached these issues with their faith at the helm –– dismissing the notion that followers of Christ were limited to the principles of a singular political party. Prior to my DC campus visit, I had no idea that a community like this was out there. And suddenly I couldn’t get enough.
When the time came, I eventually applied to GW during their early decision period, meaning that if I were chosen my admission would be binding and I couldn’t accept another school’s offer. Ironically, within days of submitting my GW application, I received a full-ride offer to go to the downtown Chicago school of my dreams.
It was now up to an admissions officer in DC to decide whether I would live a life climbing the corporate ladder or in service to my country’s future.
Something to inspire
When I finally heard back from GW, I already knew I wanted something more; something that would inspire me to wake up in the morning and leave me fulfilled at the end of each day.
I wanted to live a life that I could be proud of––one that helped people and did more than make a rich boss richer. As I’ve advanced in the nonprofit sphere, I’ve learned that I’m not alone in this way of thinking, especially among those of my own generation.
Differing generational outlooks have always interested me. Baby Boomers dawned a new age in American prosperity following WWII and laid the groundwork for how to build generational wealth. Gen X got to reap the rewards of the 80s and 90s. They followed the rules, climbed the ladder, and sought desperately to enjoy the fruits of their labor. Millennials were prepared to follow suit until the ‘08 market crash led them to be the first generation with less opportunity than their parents. This led to a sense of cynicism that is beginning to permeate throughout the American psyche.
Now stepping into its prime, Gen Z is coming out of the pandemic with a new perspective on the American Dream, one that questions the endless pursuit of monetary gain and instead places emphasis on finding meaning in life. For me, that meaning is found in knowing that my daily work of building community in electorally significant suburbs has a tangible impact on others. Some people my age choose industries that allow for equitable work-life balance, and others are choosing industries based on passions, not pensions. We see success in the journey of life –– not just in its destination.
Every day when I log into work from my new home in DC, I get to engage in building a better future for a country I believe in. I’m excited to work toward this goal, to find joy in daily conversations, and to empower others to find their voice as well. It’s not too much to ask for something more like this for all of us.
What if the new American Dream was more about community and less about collected hours on a paystub?