The American Dream: Wanted, Dead or Alive

Across college campuses and within activist communities, young adults are having conversations about the reality of the “American Dream.” Is it still present and tangible? Is it worth fanning the flames? Was it ever real and accessible?

The basic concept of the American dream is that anyone in the United States, no matter his or her background, can graduate from high school, graduate from college, get a stable, quality job, buy a house, start a family and climb the class ladder….if you work hard enough.  This is how we define success and “having it all.”  And because our society emphasizes work and the individual, we think the next rung is just waiting at the end of every fingertip. All you have to do is work a little harder to grab hold.

Firstly, the individualistic nature of our culture and our focus on independence puts the total burden of responsibility on the individual for making or breaking their future.  We know that everyone is handed a different set of cards, but we assume that if they don’t win the game, it must be because they didn’t play their cards right. Many people are dealt a hand that places them at a farther starting point because of their ethnicity, gender identity, school district, sexual orientation, or familial economic status.  A number of them DO achieve the American Dream despite the odds, but these people are not the majority by any means. They are the staunch exception, not the rule.  Having a number of sucess stories that demonstrate progress does not negate the millions more stories of communities and populations who are still stuck pretty damn close to where they started.

No matter what identity, statistic, population, region, socioeconomic class you are a part of, it takes resources, investment and strategy to succeed. That’s a given. It’s also true that in order for anyone to gain resources, a quality education, and a good job, someone else has to choose to invest in you.  That’s why who you know often outweighs what you know, because a network of connections becomes a network of investors who support your mobility.  Being a part of a community and network with resources is what accompanies and creates privilege, and is largely removed from the resource-less. Someone has to be their own advocate and seek information, training, or mentorship in order for someone else to want to invest in them.  But here is the catch. A) These tools are often not shown to you unless someone else in your family already uses them. B) No one has time to learn something different than what they are already doing when their survival is on the line.  When you are just barely holding on to where you already are, you can’t climb.

So before even tackling the issue of access to means and resources, we have to acknowledge the privileging of information. There are not wide scale systems in place for training on personal budgeting and investment, writing cover letters and resumes, interviewing for a skills-based job and negotiating salary, and how to understand and negotiate the terms of loans. Much of this information is easily accessible to those who already have means. So when information on how to best gain resources is withheld from those without them, it kicks 1/3 of this nation in the gut when they are already down.

Our formula for the American Dream is based on what we consider to be a valuable investment with high return. Higher education and real-estate used to be the best investments an individual or family could make. But the cost of attaining and maintaining these investments has been on the rise while their value has arguably defaulted.

The price of attending college has dramatically increased since our parents went to school, and more and more students are having to take on larger loans at growing interest rates.  So not only has higher education become a more burdensome investment, but the return (aka average salary and job stability) on a Bachelor’s degree has not grown to match the larger price tag. The perceived increase in value is actually due to a decline in average salary and job stability of those WITHOUT a Bachelor’s degree.  Therefore, going to college has become that much more important, but not necessarily valuable.

Purchasing a home has also become almost more of a gamble than an investment. Having a mortgage on a home in a market that significantly devalues the property has been hindering many middle class Americans’ financial need to move.  People are now faced with the question of whether or not the sale will even cover the remaining mortgage, rather than how much of a profit they will have to put towards their next home.  In short, the type of ideal living situation that we are told we ought to strive for, as it has existed, requires constant investment that we are quickly realizing is financially unsustainable. These investments in higher education and homes we make to spring forward are now pushing back.

Our millennial generation is looking at this dream that has become more and more of a burden, and knows that it needs to be updated. Some feel that it’s called the American Dream because you need to be asleep in order to believe in it. Some have watched their families struggle to make ends meet just because of the constant investment that a home requires. Some are debating whether or not to go to community college or trade school so that they don’t add to the deep pit of stress of facing unemployment and paying bills.  Some still want their white picket fence and 2.5 children. But regardless of whether the majority of this generation’s goals fit perfectly into this formula or not, a college education, a job that pays livable wages (after tax), a safe, sustainable residence, and information on how to best invest in and advocate for our longevity must all be made more accessible options that one does not get penalized for using.

No one achieves anything alone. It takes a partnership, a give and take, and people working together to get anything done. Someone has to choose to invest in you in order to GET the experience and resources, to HAVE experience and resources. This is the message that should replace the individualistic fine print of the American Dream. Emphasizing the responsibility of the individual to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, neglects the pragmatic need to be taught and guided through the how of success.  We learn through observation, so if we don’t witness these tools being used by those we identify with in our families and communities, then how are we supposed to know to put it into action for ourselves?

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