Personal Finance

Will Millennials Achieve the American Dream?

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Call it naïveté, healthy optimism or a unique outlook on the future — whatever the reason, young Americans are much more confident in what lies ahead of them than their older compatriots are.

The percentage of Millennials (ages 18 to 29) who believe the American Dream is within their reach is 57%, as opposed to the 47% of Americans 30 years and older who feel the same way. Granted, these groups don’t share a definition of the American dream, which makes things even more interesting.

The data comes from the Credit.com 2014 American Dream Survey conducted through Survey Monkey Audience between June 19 and 23. It includes responses of 1,094 American adults ages 18 years and older, and the margin of error is plus or minus 3 percentage points.

What the American Dream Means to Millennials

For the 18-to-29 crowd, owning a home was the most popular definition of the American Dream, getting 22% of responses, but retiring financially secure at age 65 was a close second, with 20% of the vote. Living debt-free took third place with 19%.

Those were also the top-three definitions among Americans 30 and older, but the order was considerably different: 41% of older participants said it was defined by a financially secure retirement at age 65, 26% said it’s living debt-free, and 16% chose home ownership. As far as owning a home goes, the difference might stem from the likelihood that the percentage of homeowners in the older group is much higher than that of the young group. At the same time, that could also be why many more older Americans feel they’ve already achieved the American Dream: 20% said they had, compared to 5% of millennials.

Clearly, retirement is among adults’ top concerns, and for a good reason: Comfortable retirement usually takes a lifetime of commitment to savings and investments (and if not a lifetime, several years of playing intense catch-up — or a sudden windfall). It can be difficult to stay on track, and as life expectancies rise, people have more saving to do.

Are Americans Pessimistic or Realistic?

Still, people are fairly confident they’ll get there, especially Millennials: 57% believe they’ll reach the American Dream (which is mostly homeownership), and only 21% say they won’t. They’re also confident in their generation: When specifically asked if Millennials would reach the American Dream, 44% said yes, but when asked about all Americans, 64% said it wasn’t within reach for others.

Older Americans were just as pessimistic about others’ ability to reach their definition of the dream — 68% said others wouldn’t achieve it — but they also don’t have much faith in the younger generation: 40% said Millennials wouldn’t reach the American Dream, and only 30% said they would. (Note: Researchers have varying definitions of “Millennial”: In the survey question, it was defined as 18 to 34, but Survey Monkey Audience has pre-set age brackets that cut off Millennials at 29.)

How Debt Differs Among Generations

However financial success unfolds for the country’s youngest adults, student loans will likely play a large part. Overall non-mortgage debt (including student loans, credit cards, auto loans, etc.) was more common among the older group, but Millennials carried much more education debt. Only 21% of the Americans 30 and older have student loan debt, while 45% of Millennials have student debt. Excluding mortgages, 46% of 18- to 29-year-olds say they’re debt free, opposed to 31% of those 30 and older.

As time goes on, those young consumers may find themselves taking out an auto loan, choosing to get a personal loan or perhaps falling into credit card debt when an emergency strikes, times get hard or spending gets away from them, just as older consumers may have done before them. To fulfill their optimism and realize their dreams, young Americans need to prioritize planning. It may not be the most exciting way to spend time in your 20s, but it’s something with lasting value.

Saving early and often, participating in employer-sponsored retirement plans and monitoring your credit will make it easier to reach that much-desired home, debt-free lifestyle or comfortable retirement. The tools to do so are at your fingertips, with the ease of mobile banking and tools like those on Credit.com, where you can review your credit data and behavior trends for free, with updates every 30 days.

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Image: Ciaran Griffin

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