To Dream The American Dream

Remember when youth and hope were synonymous?

The younger you were, the more you believed anything was possible (for yourself: I can be president! Or host “The Today Show”!) and for the future (flying cars!).

You associated, fairly or not, grey hair with pessimism or negativity. The two geezers in the balcony on “The Muppet Show”.

A terribly unfunny thing is playing out now.

A new Wall Street Journal survey finds that, increasingly, Americans have stopped believing in the “American dream”—loosely defined as faith in hard work and the prospect that your children will be better off than you are.

This is not “dream deferred” stuff due to inflation or interest rates. This is blowing out the candle.

To summarize: 36% still believe in the “dream”, 18% say it was never true and 45% say it was once true but isn’t anymore. These numbers have been slipping since 2012 and these are the worst set of numbers in the history of the survey.

Worse still, younger people are more pessimistic than older people. Much more. People too young to have tested the hypothesis are rejecting the experiment altogether, and we need to ask ourselves a hard question: what happens to a society where pessimism or cynicism is not earned through hard experience, but baked in from the beginning, when you start out believing everything is rigged against your happiness.

Nothing good happens, that’s what.

In another survey, from NBC, only 19 percent of parents were confident their children would be better off. Lowest number they ever recorded.

Now, before you fit this into a neat narrative, please note the steady long-term decline. This hasn’t been helped by the people currently in power i this land, but it also wasn’t caused by them. Not one party. Not one influence.

At the risk of simplifying, I can’t help but notice that, around the time we decided we didn’t need meritocracy (honor rolls, valedictorians, academic-based college admissions, hiring the best applicant over the most diverse one), people stopped trusting in the dividends of hard work. There’s not a hard start-date for any of those trends, but seems like a last-decade phenomenon.

Gee, it’s like people were paying attention to what was happening, or something. 

I’ve always liked the Bono quote about America being an idea, not just a country. When people “belong” to a country, all they need is the right lineage. DNA. Bloodlines.

When you’re part of an idea, there has to be buy-in. I’m not talking about soda commercial platitudes or Hallmark card sentiments.

The stuff in the Declaration, the Federalist Papers, the Gettysburg Address—and the “American Dream”— are the blueprints to this house we live in.

The idea of America is wholly-dependent on that “dream”—and the destruction of it (because the people in the survey aren’t wrong, are they?) is fatal to that idea.

Brits or Brazilians can set their expectations lower and still have their country, just less of it.

Americans cannot.


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