There used to be a ladder to success. It was the college–good job–marriage–house–family–cushy retirement. Sure, not everyone made it – there were a few broken rungs near the bottom – but that was the guiding light to the good life, and enough people made it that it seemed within reach. A few people questioned whether this ladder really led to “the good life,” but those were just hippies or crazies, no one worth paying attention to. Now all this has changed; my generation is growing up without a ladder.
Before you scoff, let’s think about that for a second. The first rung on the ladder, college, used to be seen as a straight shot to success. Now, for too many of us, it’s a straight shot to our parent’s couch and thousands of dollars in student loans. As for a “good job,” well, many of us are busing tables in restaurants and shuffling papers in unpaid internships, but we’re the lucky ones. For those who didn’t make it to college, the unemployment rate is even higher. While the economy will certainly improve, those years spent doing menial labour will never come back to us, with estimates that we could end up earning 10 per cent less on average than somebody who left school a few years before or after the recession due to the loss of critical entry-level work experience.
As Derek Thompson of the Atlantic put it, “For Millennials [those born in the eighties or early nineties], this is the great irony of the Great Recession. A crisis that started in the housing market could wind up having the most lasting negative impact on the one generation that didn’t own any homes before the bust.”
Marriage is in decline, with many young people choosing to wait or simply dismissing marriage as an outdated concept and opting for cohabitation or other “new family forms” instead. The idea that all of us should strive to own a home is what brought our economy to its knees, so we’re lowering our expectations on that one a bit.
Now that our ladder has been reduced to splinters, the question remains: What does “success” mean in the 21st century and how do we achieve it?
We know how we don’t achieve it. We know that decades of runaway capitalism with ever more desperate attempts to improve the bottom line and lobby for more deregulation have failed. We know that measuring a country merely by GDP has put the United States 25th on the “inequality-adjusted” Human Development Index – meaning that there’s a good reason why those in the 99 per cent took to the streets.
So if we’re not measuring success by GDP, what should we measure? Recently, economists and U.S. leaders have begun pushing for a something radically simple: Measure success by happiness. Of course, measuring something as complex as happiness isn’t easy but as the recent Harvard Business Review issue devoted to the topic will tell you, not only is measuring happiness possible, valuing it can greatly increase company profits.
Success for my generation will be a shift from business as usual to something Umair Haque calls “betterness.” A transition from climbing the ladder of unfulfilling societal expectations and consumerism to blazing a trail with a life guided by a holistic focus on well-being, community and sustainability. Following a better path won’t be easy but as we lie dreaming under the glow-in-the-dark stars of our childhood room we know that it’s at least one dream worth fighting for.