ST. CHARLES — "I feel that for myself it's attainable, but if I look at society as a whole, then I think the American Dream is kind of the ideology that people strive for but can't actually reach. I think that a lot of the debt that people have right now is because they're trying to reach the American Dream when they really should not be trying to do that."
Ryan Stahlschmidt, a senior at St. Charles West High School, knew he wanted to marry journalism and politics as a career when he saw President Barack Obama speak at St. Charles High School in March 2010. He wrote a story on the president's visit for the school's student paper, and even filed his own photographs.
But Stahlschmidt's aspirations don't easily mesh with the concept of the American Dream he grew up with in this St. Louis suburb. His definition of that phrase fell in line with what a lot of his peers — high school juniors and seniors — had to say when I met with their contemporary issues class earlier this semester: Go to school, go to college, get married, have children and buy a house.
"That's what everybody works toward," he said.
That one-size-fits-all description no longer suits Stahlschmidt. His concern is more about being "independently successful" rather than settling down with a family and buying a house. He doesn't expect social safety nets like Social Security to be there for him as he ages; even his parents no longer count on those benefits, he said. That's why he is determined to make it on his own.
Stahlschmidt said it's "awful" for people to chase the traditional dream scenario — having children, for instance, or buying a home — if they can't afford to do so. If you don't get the education you need for the job that will pay for the lifestyle you want, "you don't deserve to have it," he said.
"Multiple presidents have said that they want everybody to buy a house, but that just isn't realistic. In that respect, I think the American Dream is kind of dictated to us. I think that's wrong."
Stahlschmidt now has a part-time job going door to door and setting up appointments for free estimates from Midtown Home Improvements, a family-owned company in St. Charles. He said he'd be willing to settle for that kind of job over the hybrid life of journalism and politics he yearns for. He knows he's good at his current job, and he also knows a lot of people at his company who "make a pretty good living."
For all that pragmatic talk, Stahlschmidt wants to head to MU in the fall to study journalism and political science. He found me after classes were over and asked if he could get in touch with me about the programs here, since those are my two majors. His situation piqued new questions for me, especially in relation to how high schoolers balance their dreams with the economic realities they'll face when they graduate from college. How many students are amending their goals — including some that have been brewing since childhood — to be more marketable?
This story is part of the American Next, a special project exploring the hopes, fears and changing expectations of Missouri's next generation in challenging times.