This first reading material that I picked up this morning contained an article with the provocative title “The American Dream: What went wrong?” I happen to think the dream is still intact and can be as real today as it was fifty or even one hundred years ago. But today there seems to be a growing chorus of people who view it as a fantasy; in other words, a dream that they feel can’t become their reality.
With the political season reaching its own hot conclusion, rhetoric and questions about the meaning of the American Dream abound. I sometimes wonder what the phrase meant to past generations and why a swath of the current generation has filed it in the same place as the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus. My personal view of the great dream has always had roots in aspirations of self reliance and business ownership.
Here’s how it worked for one person. My grandfather was the son of freed slaves who grew up the in rural and officially segregated Alabama. If there had been a label for his place in American society, it would have said “no dreams for you today.” From his vantage point, the American dream was made up of relatively simple wishes. Grandpa Davis wanted to be allowed to move about freely, own property, to engage in commerce and to have a marriage recognized by law. An extensive formal education, a professional title and government social programs weren’t on his list. King Davis (that was his name) became a merchant with a small general store serving the black community near Andalusia Alabama in the early years of the 20th Century. He even owned a Model-T Ford automobile which earned him a place on the affluence meter that even many white citizens in the town didn’t enjoy. His only degrees were in common sense, hustle and drive. Whatever the obstacles were, he overcame them and no one denied him key parts of his dream.
Author James Truslow Adams is often credited with coining the phrase “American Dream.” In “The Epic of America” he said “The American Dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. Too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”
Recently I enjoyed giving a speech titled “How Did We Get Here from There” in Niagara Falls to commemorate the 70th Anniversary of the Niagara Housing Authority. I grew up in one of their public housing projects which is where my dreams began. A number of the five hundred people in the room were my childhood friends and neighbors, people with whom I shared many thoughts and aspirations. Some of my peers from the project became outstanding contributors to society, some lived lives of modest accomplishment and others found the slippery path to disillusionment, broken dreams and sad endings.
Are we wrong to still believe in the American Dream? Have sinister forces poked a hole in our dream balloon? Have dysfunctional parents and a tired education system robbed the younger generation of their confidence to believe that they can have the lives they dream of?
Because my company produced over five hundred episodes of a weekly small business television program, I’ve interacted with over a thousand diverse business owners. The immigrants from that group arrived on American shores with eyes shining in anticipation of making a better life by mating their deep work ethic with the rare freedoms our country offered. Their spirit is similar to that of our founders. One of the entrepreneurs from our show who built a six hundred million dollar enterprise said to me, “I knew that with limited language skills I probably wouldn’t become the president of McDonald’s, so I had to build something of my own.” That may be the key idea; to live the dream you have be prepared to build it. Ours is a country born of dreams.
If you expect the government to somehow guarantee that you’ll have a better life than your parents, own a home or be promoted to vice president of a giant corporation, that is more fantasy than a dream. I meet people every week who have a vision, want it and devote most of their waking hours to making it their dream reality. The people who don’t fully embrace the idea should at least learn to embrace those who do. They are the ones who will create the jobs that will help you live your dream.
Here is how ex-President Clinton spoke of it. “I ask you to join in a re-United States. We need to empower our people so they can take more responsibility for their own lives in a world that is ever smaller, where everyone counts. We need a new spirit of community, a sense that we are all in this together, or the American Dream will continue to wither.
The American Dream is not dead but it is merely obscured sometimes in this economically uncertain era.