What Are You Going To Do? The Question Of The American Dream

Back in the mid-1980's I was a commentator on ABC's "Good Morning America" in a month-long series on the devastating job lay-offs in Michigan's steel industry. I asked these workers, blue collar high school graduates with families to support, what choices they wanted: relocation or retraining for new jobs. Their answer was neither. They balked at anything else. All they wanted was to continue their lives like their fathers before them: life-long secure work in the same company. Saddened, I realized that their resistance would only lead to days spent commiserating in bars with cronies, drowning their despair.

We sent a second crew out to interview the wives now forced to find jobs to pay mortgages and buy groceries, jobs that they had had before marriage: bank tellers, retail sales, or waitresses. I bet that they would be grateful for the paycheck but they would grow dissatisfied with such meager income and routine. They would soon seek better opportunities through training. In the process, they would develop self-confidence and take over the reins of their families, wither encouraging their husbands or divorcing them. They did all that, as we found out later. It was a strong marker signifying the end of the second phase of The American Dream for security and comfort: a guaranteed life-long job, a traditional family with wife at home, a mortgage and savings for children's college.

At the same time manufacturing corporations flattened. People, particularly women stifled in dead-end jobs, moved out to start their own businesses. Entrepreneurialism flourished for those willing to take on risks. Business studies became the hot major in college and graduate school, outpacing liberal arts and science.

But just as people began the luxury of questioning what they wanted to be and do, markets tanked when the banking and real estate corruption ate up savings and security.

Several years later, I witness how people are adapting. I have recently been interviewing drivers for Lyft and Uber. Some are students saving for tuition. Some are artists in need of cash. One driver told me that he had just retired from the city sanitation department at only 42 with a monthly pension of $6000, the same amount he had earned working full-time. He was now driving several days a week to support his other vocation: flipping houses. He laughed at how life had worked out for him. "It's the American Dream," he beamed to me in his rear-view mirror.

Not so for another driver, a younger man, whose immigrant father had saved all his tips delivering ethnic food from restaurants to buy one apartment building after another over the course of years. He asked his son to learn property management to take over the business. But the son doesn't want to. He doesn't know what he wants to do. He drives, but he doesn't want that either. What should he do? He asks me. I advised him to take his father's offer and learn the business until he figures it out.

The American Dream is unique. No other country has been founded on a vision of self-determination. It certainly lives on but it changes over time. The Dream in our first century of nationhood was based on freedom from religious intolerance, from divine rule, from landless serfdom or imprisonment, from imposed regulation of a monarchy to self-rule. After fighting for independence, dreaming for security was a natural second phase.

We have now entered our third phase in our third century. We no longer dream from but to. The promise of security has vanished. Guarantees of jobs are gone, replaced by the unforetold impact of technology and cheaper work overseas. The internet has taken hold and nothing feels the same. Housing is expensive. Boundaries of marriage are being reinvented. Investments are unstable. College and graduate school has tripled in cost; even PhD's struggle to find academic positions. The professions such as publishing, journalism and medicine are experiencing drastic change. When big business doesn't hire us, we learn to freelance or join small teams, gigs. We train for up and coming industries: technology, health, service of all kinds.

We invent and re-invent our lives. We learn by adapting to this evolving world by developing new skills and networks, and by sharing our spaces and concepts. We question again and again how to live better together and search for new ways. Our American Dream has always been fulfilled by the process of innovation. We are still at it.

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