The American Dream Is Killing Us

Mark Manson
Oct 27, 2016 · 19 min read
Photo by Nina Frazier

American Exceptionalism

Since the beginning, Americans[2] have always seen themselves as exceptional.[3] And in many ways, the US has been an historic exception.

  1. Unlimited Cheap Labor — The vast majority of the United States has remained sparsely populated throughout its history. In fact, it was a real concern of the founding fathers and they believed they needed to attract a steady flow of immigrants from all over the world to develop a robust and self-sustaining economy. To do so, they created a democratic system that promoted entrepreneurialism and attracted talent. This generated an endless influx of cheap, industrious labor that still continues to this day. And that’s not even mentioning that little thing we had for a while called ‘slavery.’
  2. Unlimited Innovation — Perhaps the one thing the US system got right more than anything else is that it is set up to reward ingenuity and innovation. If you come up with the latest, greatest idea, it’s here, more than anywhere else, that you’ll get rewarded for it. As such, many of the great technological advances in the last few centuries came from brilliant immigrants that the US attracted to its soil.
  3. Geographic Isolation — Civilizations in Europe and Asia were invaded, conquered, invaded again, conquered again, back and forth with the tides of history wiping cultures and peoples from the map over and over again. Each time, the destruction set society back, forcing them to reconsider themselves as they rebuilt.

The Stagnating American Dream

In the future, people will probably point to the 9/11 terrorist attacks as the inflection point where the US began its slow descent away from global dominance. But the truth is that the deteriorating forces have been at work within the country for decades.

The US population comprises more college graduates than at any other time point in history. Source: Census.gov
US worker productivity has steadily increased over the past 65 years. Source: Trading Economics
Underemployment and unemployment of young college graduates still lags far behind pre-recession levels. Source: Economic Policy Institute
Most jobs created since the recovery began have been low-wage jobs followed by high-wage jobs. The recovery of middle-wage jobs has been lackluster, however. Source: NYTimes via National Employment Law Project
The labor force participation rate is the percentage of working-age people in the US who actually have jobs. Note the sustained decline following The Great Recession in 2008. Source: Trading Economics
Hipster or underemployed millennial? Or wait, is there a difference?

No More Land

Fact is, we ran out of land around 1900. So we conquered Cuba and the Philippines and like, Guam, and stuff. But after the World Wars happened we realized something the English never did: that is, why spend all of your time and money actually invading a poor country when you can just lend them money and tell them to sell you stuff for really cheap?

No More Cheap Labor

Yeah, that all got outsourced. I mean, why employ a bunch of local laborers when you can build a factory in China and get the stuff made for ¼ of the cost? RIP, Detroit. Oh, and there was this whole thing called “slavery” you might have heard of. It ended.

Innovation is Now Creating Fewer Jobs, Not More

This may be the biggest and scariest one of all. With the rise of information technology, automation, and artificial intelligence, the fact is that we don’t need as many people as we used to.[10] You know when you walk into CVS and that computer screen yells at you to put your shit in the bag and then you just swipe your card and walk out? Yeah, the whole world is going to be like that soon. Accountants. Pharmacists. Even taxi cabs and truck drivers. That’s potentially tens of millions of people out of work. With no opportunity for those jobs to ever come back.

Doesn’t matter who you elect, these jobs ain’t coming back.
The intergenerational correlation of wealth between fathers and son’s shows how closely a male’s wealth matches his father’s wealth and is used as a measure of economic mobility. Note that the higher the intergenerational correlation, the lower the economic mobility. Source: Economic Policy Institute

The American Dream Causes People to Believe that People Always Get What They Deserve

The American Dream is essentially just another form of what psychologists call “The Just World Hypothesis.”

He’s got a point, you know.

The American Dream Causes Us to Believe that People are Only Worth What They Achieve

If everybody gets what they deserve, then we should treat people based on what happens to them. Therefore, success makes you into some kind of saint, a role model that everyone else should follow. Failure turns you into a pariah, an example of what everyone else should try not to be.

The American Dream Indirectly Encourages People to Feel Justified in Exploiting Others

A couple years ago, a friend of mine was accused of a serious crime that he did not commit. He hired a lawyer, went to court, and was found not guilty.


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  1. Yes, I know technically, ‘Americans’ means everyone in the western hemisphere. But colloquially, people in the United States (and most of Europe and the world) refer to people in the US as ‘Americans’. Call us arrogant and self-centered. You’d be right. But for the sake of simplicity, I’m sticking with it.
  2. John Winthrop’s 1630 speech, “A City Upon the Hill” called for the New England colonies to become an example for the rest of the world to follow. Alexis De Tocqueville coined and commented on this “American Exceptionalism” in his famous book Democracy in America.
  3. The Spanish and Portuguese saw their New World territories as something to be exploited and pillaged. As a result, they did not invest any energy into generating an infrastructure for a sustainable civilization in South or Central America. In fact, they did the opposite. They intentionally kept their populations impoverished and helpless. The British, on the other hand, wanted to build up self-sustaining colonies that it could add to its global network of commerce. The residue of these two European approaches goes a long way to explaining the difference between the North and South that continue today.
  4. As I write this, there’s news that they believe they just discovered a massive new oil reserve in Alaska. Sorry nature.
  5. I’m looking at you, Putin.
  6. The American Dream itself was coined in the 1930s, but US history is riddled with similar concepts dating back to the 18th century and the Declaration of Independence itself.
  7. Stein, J. (2013, May 20). Millennials: The Me Me Me Generation. Time.
  8. Bureau of Labor and Statistics (2015) Employment status of the civilian noninstitutional population 25 years and over by educational attainment, sex, race, and Hispanic or Latino ethnicity.
  9. Hilsenrath, J., & Davis, B. (2016, October 12). America’s Dazzling Tech Boom Has a Downside: Not Enough Jobs. Wall Street Journal.
  10. Nutting, R. (2016, March 28). Think nothing is made in America? Output has doubled in three decades. MarketWatch.
  11. Long, H. (2016, March 29). U.S. has lost 5 million manufacturing jobs since 2000. CNNMoney. Retrieved from
  12. Johnson, A. (2013, June 24). 76% of Americans are living paycheck-to-paycheck. CNNMoney.
  13. Casselman, B. (2015, October 8). It’s Getting Harder To Move Beyond A Minimum-Wage Job. FiveThirtyEight.
  14. V. S. toristilwell. (2015, December 10). Here’s How Much the U.S. Middle Class Has Changed in 45 Years. Bloomberg.com.
  15. Khazan, O. (2014, October 8). Why Americans Are Drowning in Medical Debt. The Atlantic.
  16. Those who strongly believe people get what they deserve — that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people — are more likely to blame victims of things like violence, poverty, and disease, even when it’s abundantly clear that the victims have little to no control over their circumstances. See: Furnham, A. (2003). Belief in a just world: research progress over the past decade. Personality and Individual Differences, 34(5), 795–817.
  17. D. Desilver. (2014, October 9). For most workers, real wages have barely budged for decades.
  18. This is especially true in a performance-based society where setting and achieving goals is seen as some sort of perverted religion. The thing is, if you don’t have the right goals, you can turn into a real asshole, where the ends of achieving said goals justifies any means you used to get there. See: Schweitzer, M. E., Ordóñez, L., & Douma, B. (2004). Goal setting as a motivator of unethical behavior. Academy of Management Journal, 47(3), 422–432.

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Mark Manson

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Author of #1 NYTimes Bestseller ‘The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck’. OG Blogger. Psychology Nerd. I enjoy cats and whiskey. But not at the same time.

The Mission

A network of business & tech podcasts designed to accelerate learning. Selected as “Best of 2018” by Apple. Mission.org