As far as questions go, asking someone what they want from their life seems like a tall order. Life is the biggest thing any of us will ever do, so that query encompasses everything from work, family, friends as well as spiritual concerns. And does it even make sense to plan it out? So many pivotal decisions in life are in response to tragedies or joys we could never predict.
For most of our parents, their life goals were an easy answer: secure career, stable home and happy family. Middle-class American dream. Period. What more could you ask for?
But it turns out that we are demanding more these days. For me and, I suspect, a growing portion of my generation, those stationary targets don’t seem fulfilling enough; they also don’t reflect the changes to our globalized, dynamic economy.
Let us deconstruct this vision one component at a time.
First, the idea of American homeownership is currently in crisis, with foreclosures still keeping a brisk pace and credit markets so tight you could bounce a quarter of them. Not to mention that the homeownership ideal never was a reality for large segments of the population (Blacks and Hispanics). There’s even an argument to be made that romanticized notions of middle-class homeownership lead to some of the over-optimistic home buying, not to mention its necessary and sufficient condition: careless lending founded on mortgage-backed securities and derivatives.
Sure, a home is the best asset, and tax shelter, a person can buy, but there’s even evidence that owning a home is not great as we once thought. It used to be thought that the value of a house increases perpetually. But the housing market crash puts that myth into stark contrast with reality. Also, there are some very old homes in America–but a history of their prices does not reveal steady increases across time. Rather, like other investments, there have been frequent gyrations in prices that track with economic patterns of boom and bust.
Who wants to enter into that kind of attached, risky relationship with material property? I, for one, need more convincing.
And how about a secure career? That’s becoming more and more rare as middle-class workers change jobs more than a few times throughout their career. The company-man career model might as well be a stegosaurus.
The new reality is that workers move around, and not just in the same industry anymore. Now, it is not uncommon to find people who changed workhorses mid-stream. The new model ought to be fulfilling work, rather than stable work, because no work is stable anymore. To argue the contrary, when unemployment is just coming down slowly like temperature after a broken fever, would be to attempt a deceit.
But work that satisfies, feeds the soul as well the pocketbook is the kind of thing we will be willing to change our lifestyles for. It’s also the kind of work we might be willing to move around for, which is increasingly what we are being asked to do in the information age. And at the end of the day, isn’t purpose more valuable than purchasing power?
The matter of family is doubtlessly the most personal, and every man or woman should consider deeply their reproductive output, especially with 6.6 billion people on earth all clamoring for depleting resources. But science suggests that children do not necessarily make a happy life. In fact, research shows that those who have kids are consistently less happy than those who do not. What’s more, the American time use survey shows that parents spend an average of less than an hour with their children every day.
So I humbly reject the three-legs of the middle-class America dream barstool. Its too narrow, too restrictive, and not rewarding enough. What about those of us who want to travel, find ourselves or commit to demanding life’s work that will someday make a difference, but isn’t the most family-friendly? More and more, the question is not, ‘can we really have it all?’ It has become, ‘do we really want it all?’