Editor's note: 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.
Due to St. Charles West High School's privacy rules, we are not using the real names of students who have not yet graduated. Of the two students who graduated before this story was published, Ryan Stahlschmidt , gave us permission to publish in-depth interviews with him.
Through teenage eyes: The American Dream to suburban high schoolers
ST. CHARLES — They want to be happy. They want to be able to provide for families they haven't yet started and send their someday children to college. They want houses — not too big, but not too small, they made sure to note — and they don't want to live under the shadow of debt. They want to be the smartest people they can be.
I just want to be successful, so many of them said after pondering the question for a few minutes.
Students at St. Charles West High School live in one of the state's wealthiest counties — its per capita annual income is $30,664 and the median household income is $70,331. Located about 30 miles northwest of downtown St. Louis, it is among the fastest-growing counties in the nation.
One day this spring, about 100 freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors took time in their classes to talk about their personal hopes and fears and how their aspirations fit into the broader future of the country. They were studying different subjects across seven classes — history, contemporary issues, American government. But students in each class raised the same themes.
They know technology is having an unprecedented impact on the way members of their generation think and the goals they have. They say their generation is lazier and more entitled than those that came before — in part because of those technological advances.
They're concerned that reaching for their dreams might preclude them from paying their bills — either because the rising cost of an advanced education or because their dream jobs wouldn't pay secure salaries in an uncertain economy. Even so, they don't know if they would be willing to abandon those aspirations for financial stability.
Their core vision of the American Dream has been shaped by parents, by television and movies and by what they read in their history textbooks.
"I think that's what everybody works toward," said Ryan, a senior. "You go to school, go to college, get married, have kids, buy a house."
"I think we've sort of defined that as success," added Janine, a junior. "We've also equated happiness with that."
Yet these students are inheriting a future that might be far different than the ones they envision. As the U.S. economy faces fundamental change, the global economy struggles to find a solid footing and wars threaten on multiple fronts, they are the first generation since the Great Depression that cannot expect to have a better life than their parents.
That reality is creeping into discussions of what the American Dream will mean for them.
College: not optional
Almost all the students at St. Charles West said any hopes for the futures they want begin with a college degree. Higher education is not a question of "if," but "where."
"My parents didn't even go to college," said Laura, a junior. "It wasn't a big deal for them. Now, for us, we have to get the highest degree and get the highest education and make sure we go somewhere with it. For them, it was just making sure they had a job to get food on the table."
Laura said she'd like to live in a loft in Los Angeles, but added: "I want to be content with my life. Period."
Her classmate Janine had a slightly different story: "My family's a little different. Both of my parents … they weren't comfortable middle class people by (any) means. But they all saw education as the way out. So they were really focused in the educational department. That's how they tried to work to better their life."
Janine said her goal is to be the smartest person she can be by learning as much as possible. She's considering small private liberal arts colleges such as Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine.
"Wherever the best education is for me, that's where I go," she said. "(My parents) really don't mind the traveling. They've said that they want to send me to the best place."
Ciara, a senior, wants to become a dermatologist and eventually do her residency in Germany so she can also work as a translator. But she knows she has a lot of work ahead to make that happen.
"My ACT scores hold me back," she said. "My GPA is just fine, but my ACT score … that's just how colleges compare you to other students. And if you're trying to get into medical school like I am, that's quite a bit of money."
Amy, also a senior, said she's expected to go to college. But she's finding it's not a straight line from high school to MU, which is her first choice. She'll likely need to enroll at St. Charles Community College and transfer to the university later.
She's faced such practical challenges before. The family moved three times after her father lost his job at General Motors. Her mother, who has a college degree, was unemployed for nearly two years until she finally found work at U.S. Bank.
A culture of excess
But is doing their best enough to achieve the goals they've set for themselves? Part of the problem, several students argued, is the culture of excess the American Dream fosters. What they want might be different than what they can afford.
"I would also argue that the American Dream is this whole idea of buying wants and not needs," Janine said. "I think it's bred into society that we can buy what we want. It's not necessarily the money itself that's the issue. It's this whole concept of 'want' that is part of the American Dream — that if I want something, I can easily get it. If it's a personal goal, then I think that'd be fine. But if it's a physical expense, then that's where people have problems."
Ryan agreed. He said even his own parents know they won't be able to rely on Social Security for their retirement. That has prompted him to strive to be successful enough to support himself throughout the course of his life.
"I think my parents saw the American Dream as not really a goal — it just kind of happened to them," he said. "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 says the dream, as it's been defined in the past, is a false ideal to which people have been expected to conform, something he simply doesn't want to do.
"For me it means that, no matter what I'm involved in, whether it's just going to the park with some friends or being involved in a school activity, I've actively taken a part in that and made a positive change that can be seen and cascade from there to make more positive change," he said.
A dose of reality
As the discussion in the contemporary issues class gains momentum, teacher Steve Smith, 32, offered his two cents on the American Dream.
"Mine was to work here — I did achieve it," he said to chuckles from his students.
Smith was born in Bitburg, Germany, where his father, now a colonel in the Air Force, was stationed. Smith was raised in St. Louis, then enrolled at MU as a photojournalism major, which "did not pan out so well," he said to more laughs.
After graduating from MU, Smith went on to get a master's degree in education from Lindenwood University in St. Charles. Now as he teaches, he's back at Lindenwood, working toward a second master's degree in educational administration. His eventual goal is to become a principal.
"I make a modest living," he said. "I have a house, a kid and a dog. It's not such a bad life. When you go out from high school or college, you're like, 'I'm going to do so much better than my parents.' Then you get out, and you go, 'What my parents had was not so bad.' My parents aren't millionaires by any means, but they were responsible with their money, and I'd be happy to be where my dad's at when I'm his age. I'd be very content to be right at that spot."
Students can afford to be optimistic right now, Smith said, but what happens when the bills arrive in a few years? Does it mean taking up a job that pays those bills even if it isn't their dream?
When it comes to choosing a liberal arts education that engages the mind or a trade-school curriculum that teaches more practical skills, Amy said it depends on the person.
"It's what you'd rather do with your life and what you think would give you a better outcome," she said. "If you think going into politics is going to better you and better your family, or if you think you'd rather be on the safe side and get a certain trade skill and stay with that for the rest of your life — would it help you? It's all about perception, I think, at this point."
Maddie, a sophomore, said that building a safety net is driving her career choice.
"I know I definitely want to go to college for something that is useful, something that has a lot of jobs right now — which is unfortunate, but kind of smart," she said. She cites engineering as a possibility.
Jordan, also a sophomore, said he, too, would pick engineering over his first career choice: being a novelist.
"I was kind of split between those two," he said. "But as a career, I've just decided to go with engineer because engineers get an obscene amount of money, and it's a pretty decent job area as of the moment. (I'll) probably major in engineering or physics and take some writing classes, maybe get hired as an engineer and then write novels when I have the time."
But Catie, another sophomore, used her family's situation as an example to the contrary. She's been watching her older brother, who attends a technical school in Florida, struggle to find employment, all the while jumping from odd job to odd job, saving money wherever possible and accepting the extra bit of cash from their parents. So Chelsea worries she might regret giving up on a dream just to bow to financial realities.
"Later on in life, when you're about to retire, you're going to wish you followed that dream," she said. "My mom wanted to be a teacher. She's a nurse because that's just how it happened. And my dad wanted to be an architect. He works with computers. They put their dreams away to go with the better job. But they kind of wish they had done what they wanted to do now."
Ryan's in favor of the practical solution, even though accumulating wealth isn't one of his goals.
"I've always wanted to go into politics, but my job right now deals with sales, and I'm actually pretty good at that," he said. Ryan works at Midtown Home Improvements, a company based in O'Fallon.
"I know a lot of salesmen at my company make a pretty good living, so I could see myself settling for that if education doesn't pan out," he said.
But because each generation has seen fluctuations in the economy, Ciara said, students her age can't worry about where it's headed.
"Whether it's good or bad, that's just how it works, and you just always have to do your best and try to reach your goals so that you can make it successful for you and your family," she said. "I'm not really focused on how the economy's going to go because it's never for sure."
Looking around us and behind us
In his contemporary issues class, Smith pointed to countries that have been on the rise economically over the years, including oft-cited examples of India and China. They're "nipping at our heels," he said. If American students don't fix "attitude problems," he tells his students, they'll fall further behind.
His students take in that message but are struggling to connect Smith's theory to their reality.
"Our generations have never faced any hardships, and most of the other people in the other nations have faced many hardships," Laura said. "So we've just been sitting around doing nothing while they've been fighting for their lives."
"The stakes are a little bit higher in those countries," Ryan said. "Comfort is at stake in America, and food is at stake in those other countries."
They looked back at the generations that survived the Great Depression.
"My grandparents were very self-sufficient," Smith said. "They saved everything. But they went through the Great Depression. They instilled that in my dad, who's a baby boomer, and they didn't have to do anything. What hardships have I had to go through growing up?"
"My great-grandma was the one who immigrated here from Poland," Janine said. "They had to work to try and establish themselves in a new country with nothing. So my grandparents' generation, they were still trying to establish that. In my parents' generation, that was when it finally started to get to the breaking-even point. I don't have that experience of actually trying to work to get into society."
Are we there yet?
Some students in Smith's class questioned their generation's ability to achieve its goals. They said they've heard remarks from older generations that young people today don't have the same work ethic or know-how to buckle down to get the job done, whatever the task may be.
The St. Charles West students overwhelmingly agreed. Most were quick to nod when asked if they think their generation is lazy or entitled. They think that trend is growing with each younger class of students.
"I think the difference between the juniors and seniors in this class compared to the sophomores and freshmen at this school is huge," Ryan said. "I think really the only thing that can account for that is the rapid change of technology. We see technology grow rapidly, and we see the change in students' responsibilities grow rapidly."
Ciara gave a specific example: "The art of writing a letter to accompany a thank-you note for letting you shadow someone on the job is a lost art because you could just email them. I just think that's lazy, personally."
"I also think our generation, they don't have any drive," Laura said. "I think that older generations have had that drive, and that's why they succeeded. … Our generation's like, 'Oh, we can do it. Why do we have to work that hard?' America has become complacent."
In his class, sophomore Jordan says we've moved from the "Information Age" into the "Entertainment Age."
"Rather than gathering information, we're obsessed with entertainment like the media, culture," he said. "So people get more and more focused on enjoying themselves."
Another sophomore, Sarah, is in a different position than many of her classmates. She has a 7-month-old son and is struggling to juggle school and the challenges of being a teen parent.
"He needs a lot of attention, so I have to give it to him instead of getting my homework done," she said.
Yet even she questions programs and lifestyles that seem to let people off the hook.
"I'm on Medicaid and (food stamps), so I get free check-ups and stuff like that," she said. "But then again, I'm not for (government aid) because my mom, she got laid off, and now she's on food stamps and stuff like that, but she's just being lazy. She isn't going out looking for a job. She's just using the system."
Is it schools?
For Melanie, a junior, all the uncertainty about the future adds up to a determination to take responsibility for her own goals. She already knows exactly what she wants to do after high school: major in chemistry and help develop alternative fuels to reduce the dependence on gasoline.
She said she doesn't see that same focus in others her age. While she's not sure what caused the difference between them and her, what she does know is that the gap between students who want to learn and students who don't has a tangible effect in the classroom.
"I feel like sometimes (teachers) give less work or work of less difficulty to just kind of make sure everyone does it," she said. "People who don't care as much about school may feel more inclined to do it because it's easy. Well, then that means that people who do want to work and people who like school and people who want to learn new information don't feel pushed hard enough."
Janine argued that high school students today don't have the best teachers anymore.
"You have your older teachers retiring, so that would be your strict education," she said. "The problem with the younger generation is the lack of education."
Ryan again peppered the conversation with pragmatism.
"For me, it means I just leave class and go home and study on my own," he said.
Melanie says that it all depends on them, the students.
"I think it varies from person to person," she said. "I know people who really just don't care, who want to go through life and just get by and have fun. But some of us want to make a difference. I think it might have to do with how you grow up because my parents have always pushed stuff on me. You need to do something rewarding with your life and just not try to go through it with settling for not being the best you can be."
That's an endgame most students seemed to share, though what that means and how they'll each get there remains to be seen.