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Lisa Curtis

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Happiness Is the New Success: Why Millennials Are Reprioritizing

Posted: 01/24/2012 11:22 am

There used to be a ladder to success. It was the college→good job→marriage→house→family→cushy retirement. Sure, not everyone made it, there were a few broken rungs near the bottom but that was the guiding light to the good life and enough people made it that it seemed within reach. A few people questioned this ladder as really being "the good life" but those were just hippies or crazies, no one worth paying attention to. Now all this has changed; my generation is growing up without a ladder.

Before you scoff, let's think about that for a second. The first rung on the ladder, college, used to be seen as a straight shot to success. Now, for too many of us, it's a straight shot to our parent's couch and thousands of dollars in student loans, totaling over $1 trillion annually. As for a "good job," well, many of us are busing tables in restaurants and shuffling papers in unpaid internships, but we're the lucky ones. For those who didn't make it to college, the unemployment rate is more than doubled at 8.7 percent, leading to a total of 14 percent of young workers (20-24) who are unemployed. While the economy will certainly improve, those years spent doing menial labor will never come back to us, with estimates that we could end up earning 10 percent less on average than somebody who left school a few years before or after the recession due to the loss of critical entry-level work experience.

As Derek Thompson of the Altantic put it:

For Millennials, this is the great irony of the Great Recession. A crisis that started in the housing market could wind up having the most lasting negative impact on the one generation that didn't own any homes before the bust.

Marriage is in decline with many young people choosing to wait or simply throwing marriage out as an outdated concept and opting for cohabitation or other "new family forms" instead. The idea that all of us should strive to own a home is what brought our economy to its knees so we're lowering our expectations on that one a bit. As for retirement, don't think we don't know that social security is just a big ponzi scheme -- one that's expected to run out in 2037, well before most of us retire.

Now that our ladder has been reduced to splinters, the question remains: What does "success" mean in the 21st century and how do we achieve it?

We know how we don't achieve it. We know that decades of runaway capitalism with ever more desperate attempts to improve the bottom line and lobby for more deregulation have failed. We know that measuring our country merely by GDP has put us 25th on the "inequality-adjusted" Human Development Index -- meaning that there's a good reason why the 99 percent took to America's streets.

So if we're not measuring America's success by GDP, what should we measure? Recently, economists and national leaders have begun pushing for a something radically simple: Measure success by happiness. Of course, measuring something as complex as happiness isn't easy, but as the recent Harvard Business Review issue devoted to the topic will tell you, not only is measuring happiness possible, valuing it can greatly increase company profits.

Success for my generation will be a shift from business as usual to something that economist Umair Haque calls "Betterness" and environmental leader Billy Parish calls "Making Good." Parish recently teamed up with non-profit leader Dev Aujla to release a book called Making Good: Finding Meaning, Money and Community in a Changing World that outlines how people can make money AND make an impact. The book goes a long way towards creating a new roadmap for young people to follow.

The transition from climbing the ladder of unfulfilling societal expectations and consumerism to blazing a trail with a life guided by a holistic focus on well-being, community and sustainability won't be easy. But, as we lie dreaming under the glow-in-the-dark stars of our childhood room, we know that it's at least one dream worth fighting for.

A version of this post was previously published on Forbes.com.