60 years ago my grandparents got married and decided to carve out their piece of the American pie. Despite all of the obstacles—being young, Black, poor, undereducated, and living in segregated Arkansas—they felt if they worked hard enough and saved long enough they might be able to achieve the lauded “American Dream.”
Their quest for their version of the dream—a “good” job and a home of their own—led them first to the North, and eventually West to the Nickerson Gardens housing projects in Los Angeles.
That was the ‘60s, an era that saw extreme upheaval in our country, and at times it felt like there was no hope for African-Americans. As fires burned across Watts, Detroit, Cleveland, and Harlem, many Blacks felt like their shot at the American Dream was slipping away, but they kept working. Like my grandparents who often juggled multiple jobs at a time, most people knew—and still believed—that if they worked hard they could still have the good life.
And they did.
Despite my grandfather’s limited education—he dropped out of school in the third grade to work the fields—his work ethic was unmatched. He turned a night gig with Lockheed Martin into a full-time career painting aircrafts for the government. And after a few years in the projects, my grandparents saved up enough money to buy a house. In his lifetime, my grandfather went from working the cotton fields of Arkansas to being trusted with some of the Defense Department’s top-secret fighter jets. For my grandparents, the American Dream was real and they held tight to it.
But these days, things have changed.
Today, our country is struggling to dig itself out of one of the biggest financial disasters since the Great Depression, and despite a few signs of life, things don’t seem to be getting any better. When the economy crashed in 2008, it took the jobs and homes and dreams of millions with it. Over three years later, many find themselves either unemployed or underemployed, and with political gridlock crippling Washington, it seems like the tough times will continue indefinitely.
Last week I asked if you still believed in the American Dream and the majority said no. Some cited job losses, while others felt like the stereotypical “American Dream” never extended for people who look like us. But with the Tea Party protests of 2010 and the Occupy Wall Street protests popping up all over the country, many are wondering the same thing: What happened to the American Dream?
Is hard work still enough to guarantee the “good life”?
Increasingly, the answers aren’t so clear. While hard work has its rewards, more and more people are finding that even when they break their backs, they still struggle to make ends meet.
Last week, the government released data that showed that the median household income has dropped by nearly 10% since 2007. Moreover, economists say, “A decline of this magnitude represents a significant reduction in the American standard of living and appears to be the largest in several decades.” So while Americans continue to work hard, they are earning less money, which leads to a lowered quality of life.
So, is the American Dream dead? Not quite, but it’s in need of a remix.
The old model of going to school and graduating with a job you intend to keep until retirement is dead. These days, people don’t work for the same company for 30 years comfortable in the knowledge they’ll receive a generous pension when the time comes. Young working folks today aren’t sold on Social Security being a viable option when they hit 67. We know better.
Our American Dream cannot and will not look like that of our parents or grandparents. Our American Dream requires us to be flexible, be smart, and be open to accepting new challenges and careers when the opportunity arises.
Our Dream is much more self-actualized. We can’t wait for a company or a job to help us reach the good life; we must carve out that space for ourselves. It is no surprise that in this age of digital innovation, many of us have turned to entrepreneurship and self-employment to reach our goals. It is through these means that we will achieve “the American Dream” if we so choose.
Some will decide to reject it, while others—despite the dismal economic times we live in—still believe their American Dream is out there. No matter which stance you take, one thing is clear: You must remain in control of your destiny. You can no longer hitch your wagon to someone else’s and hope they drag you along. Find your own car, chase your own dreams, and drive it till the wheels fall off.
What happened to the American Dream? How have you redefined it?