Waking Up to the American Dream
Each generation has its own conceptualization of the American dream, and ours is unraveling. In a recent Time article, Kurt Andersen argues that the current financial crisis is not just a temporary break from the normal course; rather, it is the end of a 30 year era of excess that was itself a break from the normal course. Our parents' generation can recall a more modest (if idealistic) American dream, and a younger generation will grow up with the lessons learned from this crisis at the foundations of their vision. But our generation is stuck in the middle, with everything we've ever known about success in America beginning to crumble around us. It's hardly the end of the world, but as Anderson aptly notes, the party is over.
Forget the CEO's. Recent college grads should not have been making a million dollars a year on Wall Street. Middle-class families in Phoenix should not have been able to buy million-dollar houses (and the Banks should not have been able to profit from pretending that they could). And, for an example a bit closer to home for some readers, first-year associates at law firms should not have been making almost $200,000 a year to review documents and write memos. Deep down, we all knew it.
The "American Dream" is a term that originally described the possibility for immigrants to come to America and achieve better lives, free from the oppressive and archaic restrictions of their native countries. The concept was always somewhat nebulous, but individualism, ingenuity and the opportunity to profit from one's talents were common threads. There was also the possibility of hitting it big and going from rags to riches - something that just didn't happen anywhere else. But for most people, the idea that you could work hard and meet all of your basic needs, and live free while doing so, was enough. The American dream really was possible for everyone.
Somewhere along the way, the pursuit of wealth began to crowd out other elements of the American dream. Wealth was never so prevalent and publicized as in the last few decades. For our generation, the idea of meeting basic needs and living free is all but completely taken for granted. Anderson's article hit the nail on the head in stating, "too many of us were operating, consciously or not, with a dreamy gold-rush vision of getting rich the day after tomorrow and then cruising along as members of an impossibly large leisure class. That was always the yuppie dream: an aristocratic life achieved meritocratically."
While this new ideal was attainable for more people than ever before, it was not attainable for the majority, and it was not sustainable. The gap between rich and poor has grown, and many among society's middle class have been left to feel inferior- like they haven't "made it" in life. The tragedy in Binghampton was, in part, an extreme manifestation of this sentiment. CNN and Business Week polls over the last couple of years show that more than half of Americans believe the American dream is unattainable. Obviously, that depends on what the American dream is.
It's going to be a slow and painful transition, but I think we're on the verge of a return to the real American dream, one that is based on principles like the common good, and dignity in work. Individualism and entrepreneurialism will be alive and well, but they must no longer smother selflessness and idealism. Our next economic growth driver cannot be wealth attainment or consumption for its own sake; but rather something that is grounded in hard work, with an eye toward leaving a better world for posterity. If this awakening takes place, it will have been too late in many respects, but for a generation adrift on the remnants of our parents' unsustainable vision of the American dream, it will be just in time.