The following is the winning essay in The Lantern‘s $1,000 for 1,000 words contest. The prompt the writer chose was: “Is the American dream dying for our generation? Are you optimistic or pessimistic about your future and the future of the country?”
Not very long ago, I read an article in The Economist (dated April 15th) analyzing how real the disparity between the rich and poor is in America. The article used a lot of jargon reserved for people like Ben Bernanke and the upper echelons of the intelligentsia – The Economist’s target audience – but it does hammer home its main point in simple English: The rich are getting a lot richer, probably richer than we think, while the middle class is merely scraping by. Its author, credited only as M.S., even went as far as writing that America today is more segregated by class than much of Europe, vestiges of aristocracies and all.
There is always an article or conversation about this income gap somewhere, and sobering analyses like this one make me inclined to believe the American Dream is closer to being six feet under with each passing day. And it is not solely rooted in the charge that America is abandoning its middle class. To take a look at America’s attitudes toward immigrants and many non-Christians, for example, suggests it is becoming a more exclusive nation. This is not the America of previous generations, I’m inclined to think. The notion that anyone can achieve prosperity is antiquated; the opportunities in this land are becoming farther and fewer between.
When I take a step back, I realize America of generations past worked under a different system. America in 2011 runs on a new economic engine, and so maybe the American Dream as we know it hasn’t yet caught up.
Think about what the American Dream meant to our parents and grandparents. First, they received some education. Maybe a couple got to go to college, but for the most part a high school diploma was the gold standard. That was all that was necessary to start finding work. A lot of our relatives, especially here in Ohio, went to work in factories. Of course many went to work in other fields, but the blue-collar worker typified upward mobility for many. From there, our parents and relatives improved their lot, and after a while were able to move out of whichever big city they were based in: Cleveland, Cincinnati, wherever. They found a home in Parma, Cheviot, or any other suburb, and from there, things really took off. They bought a second car, took weekend trips in the summer and put their kids through better and more advanced schooling than they had.
This was the model of the American Dream that worked. These so-called “everyday people” improved their lot, accumulated more material goods and moved into a better living situation than before. As many of us know, however, America underwent a shift. Finding work at age 18 is unthinkable today. Work in manufacturing to achieve a decent standard of living is disappearing fast.
That is why we think the American Dream is dying. A lot of us are still led to believe it is an easy process to envision and execute, and all it takes is a little bit of work. The times have changed, though, and the notion of the American Dream needs to change, too. I like to believe the American Dream is still alive and can be achieved with the same hard work as previous generations, albeit in a different mold.
In my case, and in the case of many here at Ohio State, we are doing our best to conform to the demands of the new economy. We have already taken a great leap by being here. Some form of higher education is necessary, and while that virtue has been stressed to us countless times it is only because any modern workforce demands it.
In terms of what we are actually doing with this education, many are finding an interest or specialization. The modern workforce is full of specialists, and those who exploit their interest to do work few others can do are the ones prospering today. Beyond the classroom, I and many others are building broader and farther reaching social networks. It is almost necessary to know more people and have more resources from diverse places because, unlike years ago, relying solely on community and kinship ties will not reach far.
So when looking at the Ohio State community and myself, I have confidence in the future. We have made it this far for an opportunity to earn a degree. We either have the tools or are acquiring them so as to be prepared for a new kind of workforce where knowledge precedes prosperity.
Yet Ohio State and colleges in general are not enough to represent a “new” American Dream. They never will be, not until we give scores of other men and women from this generation an opportunity to be on par with those of us fortunate enough to have access to education. We’ve struggled for decades as a society as far as education disparities, and the recent news of funding cuts to Ohio schools only offers more discouragement.
Fixing that problem, and similar problems in other states, will not be a cure-all. It is, however, a step in the right direction. For if we start to change that, it will begin to signify a new mindset, a renewed attitude that will preserve the American Dream.
When our collective mentality undergoes a shift, and more and more of us understand that having more schooling and the ability to create and think – skills that will help more of us thrive in modern times and take the same amount of hard work that brought prosperity to previous generations – then we will have chartered a path toward a new American Dream and away from the contemporary Gilded Age, as The Economist reports.
Whether or not this will happen in my lifetime, I am not sure. It will depend on our national priorities and the choices of emerging leaders from my generation. It will be in my hands and in the hands of my peers, for better or worse.