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Why ‘Follow Your Dreams’ Is Misguided Advice

careerproblems_400There is a relentless cultural message to young people: you can be anything you want to be, as long as you believe in yourself–no matter how irrational or improbable. Generation Me (those born in the 1980s and 1990s) dreams big. While our parents may have aimed simply to leave their small town or to go to college, Generation Me wants to make lots of money at a career that is fulfilling and makes them famous. From Generation Me.

In a 2011 survey, 16-to-18-year-olds expected their starting salary to be $73,000, which they assumed would rise to $150,000 once they were established in their career. However, the median household income in 2009—for all adults—was $50,000, or around a third of the teens’ aspirations. Overall, young people predicted a bright future for themselves, even during the years of the late 2000s recession and its aftermath. Fifty-seven percent of high school seniors in 2012 predicted that they would own more than their parents; only 10% thought they would own less. In the 2011 survey, 59% believed they would do better financially than their parents.

Expectations for advancement and promotion are also high. One young employee told a startled manager that he expected to be a vice president at the company within three years. When the manager told him this was not realistic (most vice presidents were in their sixties), the young man got angry with him and said, “You should encourage me and help me fulfill my expectations.”

Related to “you can be anything” is “follow your dreams” or “never give up on your dreams”—like self-focus, a concept that GenMe speaks as a native language. According to the Google Books Ngram Viewer, the phrase follow your dreams appeared 17 times more often in American books in 2008 versus 1990 and never give up appeared three times more often in 2008 compared to 1970. An amazing number of the young people interviewed in Quarterlife Crisis adhered fiercely to this belief. Derrick, struggling to be a comedy writer in Hollywood, says, “Never give up on your dreams. If you’re lucky enough to actually have one, you owe it to yourself to hold on to it.” Robin, a 23-year-old from Nebraska, says, “Never give up on your dreams. Why do something that won’t bring about your dreams?” I was pretty well indoctrinated myself: the title of my high school valedictory speech was “Hold Fast to Dreams.”

Some people might argue that this is just youthful hope—after all, hasn’t every generation dreamed big during adolescence? Maybe, but GenMe’s dreams are bigger. While our parents may have aimed simply to leave their small town or to go to college, we want to make lots of money at a career that is fulfilling and makes us famous.

“Following your dreams” sounds like a good principle, until you realize that every waiter in LA is following his or her dream of becoming an actor, and most of them won’t succeed. Most people are not going to realize their dreams because most people do not dream of becoming accountants, social workers, or trash collectors—just to name three jobs that society can’t do without but nevertheless factor into few childhood fantasies. And few dream of the white-collar jobs in business that many of us have or will have. “No one at my company is following his dream,” says one of my friends who works in marketing. That doesn’t have to be depressing—it’s just the reality that the vast majority of jobs aren’t particularly exciting or glamorous. With luck, you’ll enjoy what you’re doing and pay your bills, but dreams are called that for a reason: they are not real.

The most common dreams of young people are acting, sports, music, and screenwriting. In 2012, more college freshmen wanted to be an actor or entertainer than a college teacher, a foreign service worker, a school counselor, a member of the clergy, an architect, or a salesperson. Music was just as popular as acting, and even more said they wanted to be artists. Almost 1 out of 20 college students expects to become an actor, artist, or musician—more than want to be lawyers, accountants, business owners, scientific researchers, or high school teachers. “I just wanted to tell you not to give up on your dream,” one student says to another on Glee. “If you can imagine it, it can come true.”

GenMe also holds on to dreams more fiercely, and in a way that makes you wonder how they will react if they don’t achieve their lofty goals. Morgan, 22, began her graduate school application essay by writing, “On my 70th birthday, I want to be able to reflect on my life and say ‘I followed my dreams and lived for my passions.’ In other words, I will not be discouraged by closed doors, and will not be denied the opportunity to live to my fullest potential.” In Quarterlife Crisis, Emily, 22, says that if a young person “never gives up, then he or she will never have to admit to failure.” Uh-huh. But you might have to live in your car.

Quarterlife Crisis does discuss one young person who “decided to change his dream rather than accept failure.” Mark, 29, tried for years to make it as an actor in New York; he realizes now he should have moved to LA sooner, where “I bet I would have been cast on a soap opera.” He finally decided to give up on acting and pursue another career. His new, and presumably more realistic, choice? To be a movie director. (I am not making this up, and the book’s authors, both twentysomethings themselves, present this story without comment or irony.)


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