Dreaming a New Dream

Why now is the time to revisit the American Dream.

American flag behind a window in a distressed house.
Photo by Max Sulik on Unsplash

I distinctly remember sitting in my 11th grade English class. We were discussing the “American Dream,” the literary theme in the Great Gatsby. I raised my hand and stated something along the lines of, “I don’t think I will achieve the American Dream. I don’t know how I can do better than my parents.”

I am not sure what prompted the sixteen year old me to say this. I couldn’t have predicted the future and the financial plague that Boomers would leave for millennials and future generations to clean up.

There was truth in what I said though. My parents, Boomers, went to college and had meaningful professions. They are homeowners. They have two children and a happy marriage. My mom opened her own successful small business before “women owned business” and “entrepreneur” were buzzwords. She started it when we were little and as we grew, so did her business. My dad had a successful career in public television. Both my parents enjoyed their work. They experience financial stability. To my sixteen year old self that was literally what the American Dream was about. My parents had already achieved more than their parents did. What more was there to achieve? Wasn’t what they had accomplished enough? If the American Dream is about prosperity, success and upward social mobility my sixteen year old self couldn’t understand what even more of that looked like for me and my family personally, beyond being a celebrity or hitting multi-millionaire status.

I understand that many people did not come from a background like mine. There are so many complexities as to why the idea of “achieving the American Dream” is both problematic and not possible due to systemic barriers. My critique is in the concept of not only the American Dream but the “why” or the values behind the American Dream. When is enough, enough?

But maybe that is the problem with the American Dream, the concept of the dream keeps getting bigger and bigger. Should we all dream of being massively wealthy billionaires and creating a rocket that could launch us into space? And for what purpose and for whose benefit? And whose well-being might suffer as a consequence of our dreams?

For years what I said at sixteen haunted me as I struggled to find any sense of financial stability in my life, even after receiving a master’s degree. As I would look at my bank account I would remember what I said and wonder if I was powerful enough to speak my future into existence. Would I be worse off than my parents?

I think about that moment in English Literature often and recently my perspective on that ‘premonition’’ has changed. Maybe I wasn’t predicting the future for myself but I was tuning into a realization that the American Dream was based on a set of values that were faulty. Values such as individualism, materialism and competition.

The late Michael Ford, the Founding Director of the Center for the Study of the American Dream at Xavier University, wrote that the American Dream was not about wealth, or buying an expensive house or getting a better job. He felt that the American Dream “is about hope, aspiration, and the freedom to lead a meaningful life and to become the person one wants to be.”

I admire Ford’s shift in perspective, from the “doing” and achieving aspect of the dream to the “being.” However, it is focused on the individual and individualism is one of America’s societal values. His version of the American Dream is still prioritizing “me” over “we”.

In some ways, I believe that younger generations have embodied Ford’s version of the American Dream. There has been an unspoken psychological evolution of the American Dream that Gen X, Millennials and Gen Z are championing. We have created an alternative, moving from how are we going to do better than our parents to how are we going to bebetter than our parents? We have become more conscious in our behaviors choosing to no longer hit our children or stay in unhealthy marriages. We are leaving toxic workplaces and creating boundaries to protect our peace even if it means cutting off family or removing ourselves from religious institutions.

Which is why I think now is the ideal time to revisit the American Dream. The concept of the American Dream has not changed, even though we have changed.

The American Dream is considered the national ethos of our country. The Miriam Webster definition of ethos is “the distinguishing character, sentiment, moral nature, or guiding beliefs of a person, group, or institution.”

Look around. Individualism, devoid of collective responsibility, in pursuit of the American Dream has created the American Nightmare.

The emphasis on self, the value of freedom and independence, has had dire consequences in a world where we are interconnected, where your choices and behaviors impact me and vice-a-versa. Experiencing a global pandemic together has revealed that the ethos of our country will, ultimately, be our downfall. Holding tightly to what we believe makes us great, makes us exceptional, is literally killing us.

Our illusion and delusion will not rescue us from reality.

During the week of August 9th, 2021 these were our news headlines:

What do we want our collective ethos to be? What beliefs do we want to guide us into the future? Right now we are merely surviving. Is that enough?

What would it look like if the American Dream evolved into a collective dream of a responsibility for others and our habitat?

If you were to rewrite the American Dream what would it be?

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