The New American Dream: Where Have All The Hippies Gone?

The American Dream that many so-called “hippies” of the 1960s counterculture movement embraced, chanting their mantra of “Peace and Love,” became something very different once the 1970s, which Tom Wolfe named “the Me decade,” came along. Somewhere along their free-loving, pot smoking, corporation bashing, military and government hating, revolutionary “road,” the hippies (or a majority of them) took the wrong fork and created a very different dream.

This 1970s dream embraced a nirvana scenario which included a bunch of stuff, accumulating more of it, and better yet, bigger stuff. Money and power, of course, were basic ingredients in this recipe. So, what’s the new American dream? Well, while we were busy worrying about unemployment, the stock market, and the housing crisis, at a time when these things are harder to come by than ever before in our lives, the descendants of the old dream-makers have created a new American Dream. And in many ways, the new dream is better than the old one!

The economic setback is no big deal to these new, young pioneers, who do not care about owning McMansions or driving to the country club in their Bentleys or accumulating more money for the sake of it.

The new pioneers are the kids and grandkids of these old boomers (ironically, many of them aging hippies” who once dreamed as their kids now do, but, who got lured into the old American “me” dream). These new dream builders looked at, and some even lived in, the big houses, surrounded by lots of stuff, and said: “I don’t think so. I’m outta here.”

Their “yellow brick road” leads not to opulence, but to openness and mobility, quality over quantity, backpacks over Barca-loungers, bicycles over Bentleys, minimalist homes on lease over opulent real estate with mortgages, community over self, and matters of the mind over material possessions. Essentially, the new American Dream finally defines a way to reach the pinnacle of Maslowe’s hierarchy of needs, that of self-actualization, in a way the “Me” generation never achieved: maximizing personal potential and making a lasting and significant contribution.

This is the “emerald city” for today’s young adults. This dream doesn’t require great wealth, which ultimately diminishes life. This dream leads to wisdom which never stops growing and never dies. And, the only “bubbles” this dream will create are those that float into the future and never pop.
So, this economy, whatever its outcome, is in some ways simply a positive accelerant for the new dream creators, the young pioneers in search of a higher, more sustainable and fulfilling happiness, directly opposite that which the old American Dream created.

WHO ARE THESE NEW DREAM MAKERS?

Futurists, consultants and anthropologists interested in such things would likely define the core group of “new American dream makers” as millennials, people aged 18-25. They would also cite one of their defining characteristics as incorrigibility: not able to be corrected, improved, or reformed. Indeed, that same characteristic was attached to their “boomer” grandparents in the late 1960s. And, just as it required this incorrigible and ideologically driven nature to build the old American dream, it will take the same determination and righteousness of cause to create the new dream.

Marian Salzman, CEO, North America PR, of Euro RSCG Worldwide, one of the largest integrated marketing communications agencies, who has tracked and deeply researched this cohort, says it is important to not underestimate the power of young minds. “People under 30 changed the way we communicate (see the founders of Google and Facebook) and helped propel Barack Obama into the presidency. They have a genuine passion for good, forcing businesses to clean up their act and pay up on their promises of social responsibility. And they are energetic and passionate about their own power (with the help of social media) to change the world.”

Now, before I get too carried away, giving you the impression that the entire millennial cohort is a bunch of idealistic purists, and all about community, community, community as opposed to me, me, me and more, more, more, let me acknowledge that there are certainly sectors within the cohort that are still attached to the pursuit of “bling” and all the other self-aggrandizing aspects of the old American dream. One has only to watch some of the latest music videos or reality TV shows for evidence of this. However, I believe those sectors will be marginalized over time.
Furthermore, this group is not driving the aforementioned cultural changes purely out of the “goodness of their hearts,” and ideologically for all of mankind. Rather, in my opinion, it’s a result of simply being disgusted with what defined the old American dream. And, fortunately, for our planet and mankind – both of which can no longer provide the American dream without having the planet implode – the timing of this is not only perfect, it’s imperative.

Millennials are also not without a mild case of narcissism. This will impact everything from consumer product marketing to human resources management. As Ms. Salzman said, “You can’t really ask them to live and breathe the company, because they’re living and breathing themselves – and that keeps them very busy.” Mild narcissism and incorrigibility are also traits common among great leaders. If unleashed en masse to lead our culture to a new and better place, these new dreamers will certainly have the power to make it happen.

POSITIVE FORCES DRIVING THE NEW DREAM

According to a study by Euro RSCG Worldwide, people are “trading hyper-consumerism for a consumption that’s more subdued, considered, and sane: rightsizing (owning less stuff), growing up (gaining control and accepting personal responsibility), seeking purposeful pleasure (being aware of their capacity to influence by what they buy), and embracing substance (finding what’s real).”

Ms. Salzman views teenagers as being on the edge of “a new frontier of social culture. They’re changing the field of marketing, altering communications, inventing new lexicons and adopting still-embryonic innovations. Once we were impressed, maybe even a little confounded, when a teen guided us through a new social technology. But today the situation is far beyond that. Teens are the ones who are inventing, not guiding; they’re creating, not using. The teens of today have never known a world without hyper-connectivity. They’re finding that the moment they possess two critical things they never had before – the tools of social power and a reason to use them – they are transformed. And so is the rest of society because of it.”

Another “dream changer” is the virally explosive phenomenon of social networking. Salzman says it’s the “age of the social mind. Social networking is opening the world to causes, awareness, social responsibility, social action. And blurring is taken to the extreme: Life meets work for the ultimate convergence. Yes, you can reach anyone, anytime, but that has led to an “always on” culture leading any of us feeling the need to unplug. Time is now the ultimate luxury item and our most precious resource.”

Robin Report Editor and marketing consultant Judith Russell offered her observations on why this generation of new dream makers will persist and prevail in their quest. “The less one is a slave to one’s stuff, the freer one is. A whole library of 5,000 books can fit in the palm of your hand, instead of taking up walls and boxes in your house. It’s even a bit Zen, being able to carry everything you own, and very much in keeping with what our founding fathers were thinking – the whole foundation of freedom, on using your mind, your intuition, not just the fact that you inherited a title or a manor or an estate. It’s very democratic. There’s no need to prove your success with outward trappings. How many of the great works of 18th and 19th century English literature were about the curse of possessions?

“Spiritual leaders have been telling people to give away what they own for centuries – could it be we’re finally listening to the advice, realizing it doesn’t conflict at all with capitalism, social consciousness and self- actualization? In fact, it all makes sense.

“Then there’s the whole part about relationships with others, the social part, which is key…staying connected 24/7 no matter where you are…talking with friends in Kenya and Scotland as often as the ones next door. The fact that relationships are more important than winning, that process trumps goals (“there is no finish line”), and that it’s possible to overthrow governments via Facebook are all threads running through the new American dream.” Yes, the new American dream is becoming a reality. And, for our culture, for the other cultures in the world, and for our economy, our democracy and for the sustainable future of the human species on this planet, it could not be coming at a more critical time.

So, to all of you I wish “Sweet Dreams.”

Robin Lewis About Robin Lewis

Robin Lewis has over forty years of strategic operating and consulting experience in the retail and related consumer products industries. He has held executive positions at DuPont, VF Corporation, Women’s Wear Daily (WWD), and Goldman Sachs, among others, and has consulted for dozens of retail, consumer products and other companies. In addition to his role as CEO and Editorial Director of The Robin Report, he is a professor at the Graduate School of Professional Studies at The Fashion Institute of Technology.