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The Evolving American Dream

We’re adapting to a world with limits.

Much has been written about the broad economic and technological changes in our lives. But just how are we handling these changes? I have been tracking public opinion since the late 1980s, and the answer is simple: American attitudes and expectations are changing just as dramatically.

In the early 1990s it was common to speak of the “angry white voter.” I recall a survey I did in upstate New York in 1987, when 4 percent of those polled said they had “missed eating for 24 hours at a time because of a lack of money or food.” This included people earning from $75,000 to $100,000. Probing further, we found the common denominator of their dissatisfaction: 14 percent said they were working at a job that paid less than their previous job. Holding fast to the trappings of the American dream, these folks were unwilling to give up their homes, cars or other possessions that defined their middle-class lives. Today that segment has grown to 27 percent. Over the years I’ve seen them move through anger, despair and acceptance to adjustment to their new circumstances. So on one hand millions of Americans in the new economy are spending less and defining their lives less around things they own or need.

On the other hand, a smaller but still significant number of people have achieved material success. With 25 to 35 more years of good health, they want to live a more fulfilling and genuine life defined less by jobs and possessions and more by what they do.

What do the changes mean for different age groups? We took a look:

The Private Generation (1926-45): The foot soldiers of a new army of volunteers grew to adulthood mostly without questioning authority. They will constitute the largest pool of octogenarians, nonagenarians and centenarians ever. From them we will learn how (and how not) to age with dignity and how to make the post-retirement years useful.

The Woodstockers (1946-1964): My fellow boomers stopped a war, marched for equality and helped usher in new values regarding gender, sex and the environment. We know the power of protest and how to use it. So we will force Congress to pass meaningful health care reform, and we’ll show how to live well and live within limits.

The Nike Generation (1965-78): Born into a world of assassinations, presidential scandals, abortion rights debates, military losses and record divorce rates, Nikes learned early that no institution is permanent, that relationships are fleeting. They’re creating a world of indie films and music, holistic medicine, organic food—and alternatives to traditional marriages, families and schools.

The First Globals (1979-90): Over half of these young Americans have passports and a worldview that is planetary. One in four “expect” to live and work in a foreign country. They’re instantly exposed to the entire world via the Internet, music, fashion and sports. They’re driving a new age of inclusion and authenticity. As our internationalists, they’re the least likely to feel that our culture is superior to that of other nations. They prefer not to take a simple pro or con on tough issues such as abortion, but rather to judge each situation on its merits.

In short, we see a fundamental transformation in the American character—and the American dream: living within limits, more modest expectations, a global view and a demand for authenticity.

John Zogby is the author of The Way We’ll Be: The Transformation of the American Dream, published by Random House.