What is the American Dream anyway? Is it the dream of one day owning a big home with an expansive suburban backyard? Is it owning your own business? Is it freedom from religious prosecution?

Pollster John Zogby, speaking at this week's PCBC in San Francisco, argued that for a growing percentage of the population the American dream is defined by spiritual rather than materialist goals. His polls show that 46% of the American public defines the American dream by quality of life rather than quantity of possessions. Builders, he said, won't be able to "function properly" unless they get to know these buyers intimately, whether through market research or living among them.

When he set out to write a book about the American Dream, "The Way We'll Be," Zogby figured he'd find that people were giving up on it. Instead, he found that the dream had changed. "I saw resilience among the American people," he said.

Zogby outlined four pools of people who share this spiritual connection. A sizable portion of the population, he said, is now working for less. They have de-emphasized what they own or where they live to define themselves. "They are the new American consumer," he said, adding that these are smart consumers who will shop for bargains but save money to buy something nice they really want. It's a mistake to try to reach this group by marketing fantasy; reality is what appeals to them.

A second cohort of 9 to 10 million Americans has done very well in life, but it is now making a conscious decision to stop materialist behavior. They may decide not to do a 4,000 square foot addition because they aren't fully utilizing the 5,000 square foot home they already have. They don't want the hassle of owning even more. "There's a real movement toward simplification," Zogby said.

Aging baby boomers, 78 million strong, are a third source of secular spiritualism. Many who believe they changed the world when they were 19 are now looking for a second act as they turn 60. Zogby suggested that this generation, instead of looking forward to retirement, is searching for "encore living," a way to spend the remaining years of their life giving back to society through volunteer work and other endeavors.

The fourth group of spiritualists is inclined toward personal sacrifice. "One of the great untold stories of the last 25 years is the revolution in recycling," said Zogby, who did some of the early survey work with local governments that revealed a latent desire to recycle. "Americans are looking for the next wave of sacrifice," he said, suggesting that it will be in the area of sustainability. "We are citizens of the planet Earth."

Besides appealing to buyers looking for spiritual fulfillment, Zogby recommended that builders pay close attention to the behavior of Generation Y, which are 18- to 30-year-olds.

These are America's first global citizens, he said, citing polls that show 56% have a passport and travel abroad, and one fourth say they expect to live and work in a foreign country within their lifetime. This group communicates through social networks with friends from foreign countries. They follow international sports. They may marry people from foreign countries. They are a mobile group that wants to cluster in urban areas. They will have an average of four jobs before they turn 30.

"They may not want to live in the same place forever," said Zogby, arguing that this demographic will create new forms of shared homeownership to accommodate their mobile lifestyle.

Boyce Thompson is editorial director of BUILDER magazine.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: San Francisco, CA.