Protecting the American Dream Should Be the President's Top Priority

When I was appointed dean of Harvard Business School in 2010, it was an achievement that led me many a time to say, "Only in America!" Where else could an immigrant who came to attend graduate school on a scholarship be chosen as dean of one of the country's leading business schools? My story is a vivid reminder of just how meritocratic American society is.

My current job is just one in a series of blessings that have formed my personal version of the American Dream. Many people equate the American Dream with the attainment of a key set of possessions -- a car and a home, for instance -- or a steadily rising standard of living. While those are certainly desirable, in my view the more important element differentiating the U.S. economy from most others is its social mobility. Warren Buffett likes to talk about the "ovarian lottery" that determines the destiny of citizens in many other countries, where one's lifelong status is more-or-less determined by the identity of one's parents. The United States, in contrast, has a surplus of self-made men and women (including Buffett) whose up-from-bootstraps achievements help inspire the generations that follow to work hard and pursue their ambitions.

No matter how you define the American Dream, it's clearly facing new challenges -- a situation brought into high relief during the U.S. presidential election. On the stump, at the conventions and in the debates, both candidates touted their plans to improve the fortunes of the middle class, whose anxieties about stalled mobility have become so palpable. Those fears are understandable. Long before the Great Recession, secular shifts -- globalization, technology, contingent workers, and the decline of unions, among other forces -- had devalued the skills on which many Americans depend for their livelihood. The recession has exacerbated that trend. For the first time in our lives, the promise of upward mobility -- the core of the American Dream -- can no longer be taken for granted. Now that the elections are over, the top priority for the new president is to enact policies that support job growth and reduce worker anxieties -- or, to put it another way, to find ways to ensure that the American Dream remains alive.

As someone born overseas who came to America in 1984, but became a U.S. citizen a decade ago, I have both an outsider and insider's perspective on what makes the American model so distinctive. This week, as our country's executive leadership begins its quadrennial shift from the business of campaigning to the business of governing, let me offer three thoughts to keep in mind as we attempt to find ways to renew and support the American Dream.

First, we must recognize that the American Dream has effectively gone global, largely because the United States has successfully exported the ideals behind it. When I travel to Brazil, China, India and Malaysia (among other places), I encounter people with a newfound sense of opportunity and optimism. Yes, these people increasingly own the trappings of middle class life: televisions, automobiles, smartphones and status-conscious clothing. But more importantly, they possess ambitions that were once unimaginable. Societies where parents once suppressed their children's aspirations (because their futures were already determined by the "ovarian lottery") are now brimming with an entrepreneurial spirit. The sense that young people in these places need to emigrate to fulfill their ambitions -- a pervasive feeling just a few decades ago -- is abating. If the 20th century was the American Century, we're now in a Global Century, one in which what Fareed Zakaria calls "the rise of the rest" is the dominant narrative. While there are many positive results from this shift, we need to recognize that America's gravitational pull will decline as people born in other lands encounter better opportunities to reach their dreams at home. In an era when the United States routinely depends on immigrants to fill important scientific and technical positions, and to start or lead companies from Google and Intel to Coca Cola and Pepsico, we can no longer take for granted that top talent will immigrate to the U.S. in the 21st century as frequently as it did in earlier times.

Second, it's imperative that we understand the pernicious and corrosive effects that envy can have on the American Dream. America has always been an ambitious place, so people born here may not realize how different attitudes can be in other countries--places I think of as having "envy economies." It's an attitude I've witnessed most vividly when talking with colleagues brought up in Communist countries, where parents actively tamped down children's dreams. Over time, the economics of envy reduce agency, and make people attribute outcomes to forces beyond their control. It shifts people's gaze towards others in a negative way, and takes their focus away from their own goals. In an ambition economy, people enjoy watching others get ahead, because it reinforces their sense that they can succeed, too. In any envy economy, in contrast, people often feel like they're playing in a zero-sum game, and that if someone else gets ahead, it comes at their own expense. Lately there are signs that America is shifting from an orientation of ambition toward one of envy -- an attitude that can be seen when the 99 percent protest against the success of the 1 percent, or the 53 percent rail against the dependency of the 43 percent. That's a shift we want to avoid. The politics of envy divides us, whereas the shared ambition of pursuing the American Dream unites us.

Third, while it's important to recognize the myriad challenges that threaten social mobility -- including, in addition to globalization and technology, the weak labor market and the high cost of college -- it's crucial that we not become paralyzed or hopeless in confronting what seems like insurmountable problems. Sometimes reframing the problem to focus on individual behavior, instead of large societal forces, can help. Toward that end, instead of asking "How can we fix the American Dream?" individuals may be better off asking themselves "Am I acting in ways that support that dream in my own life?" As Thomas Friedman wrote in September, instead of following Bill Clinton's simple 1992 formula of "working hard and playing by the rules," in today's economy, people who want a decent job and a good life "have to work harder, regularly reinvent yourself, obtain at least some form of postsecondary education, make sure that you're engaged in lifelong learning and play by the rules."

That may seem a daunting list of prescriptions. But it's on target, and it's a reminder that despite the faith voters show when casting a ballot for the candidate of their choice, restoring the American Dream is task that's both collective and individual. Our larger dream is, after all, a mosaic made of millions of smaller ones -- and while we can hope for the next president to create an atmosphere that's more conducive to letting citizens get ahead, we must remember that it's individuals who supply most of the momentum for that climb.

Nitin Nohria is dean of Harvard Business School.