What is ‘the American Dream’?

The conventional wisdom is that ‘The American Dream’ is a goal and aspiration on the part of Americans for some form of ‘conventional’ middle class life: a house, 2 kids, a car, one day retirement.

Never trust conventional wisdom.

The American Dream is about income mobility, meritocracy, and choice. The idea that, with enough hard work, with investment of time and passion, you can make a living for yourself, take care of your family, if you choose to have one, and one day retire, if you choose to. That you can climb from your station in life to a different rung, given energy and effort, again if you choose to. That if you live your life in accordance to responsibilities and goals, things will improve for you, your family and community.

The promotion of the Dream was good for business, it was good for our communities, it was good for ourselves (that is, of course, if you remembered what you were working for instead of some long sought carrot). Our environment took a massive hit, but that could have been resolved without what is taking place right now, by emphasizing and reemphasizing responsibility and consequences. As it stands, things are just getting worst on that score, Dream or no.

Friend and co-worker, Jack, once in chatting with me said that I can take a list with “American Dream” on it and check it off – Complete. I was taken aback. Really? But yesterday was a window into that.

Saturday, I got the chance to hang out with my neighbors and some friends (hi Howard!) at a block party we held. It wasn’t one of those events that were required because we didn’t know one another – just the opposite – it happened because folks on the block have gotten to know one another. There were police officers, office workers, engineers, firemen, medical technicians, masons, carpenters and more among us. Our families played games, we ate, we danced, we got along with one another and grew a few stitches closer.

Some present at the party are amidst a fight to find a way back into workforce before their dream takes a hit. I thought about them, and I wondered about the future for my daughter, my wife, myself.

Just a short while ago I was working night shift at 7-11, a few blocks from where I now work, falling behind on my bills. And earlier from that, I dealt with getting thrown from home from a mother’s boyfriend who had enough of children around him, and ended up sleeping on the train. I’ve come very, very far. But it is such a quick slope back into a struggle to survive the next day.

For an increasing number of Americans, the kind of income and class mobility I experienced is further and further out of reach, and for many who have achieved it, fears grow:

FT.com: Edward Luce: “The crisis of middle-class America”

HuffingtonPost.com: Laura Bassett: “Dwindling Retirement Savings ‘Undiscussed Explosive Bomb’ Of Recession”

Guardian: Paul Harris: “Jobless millions signal death of the American dream for many”

Metafilter: “Desperation”

Add to this how the “Great Recession” is speeding up the decay of infrastructure required to support the day to day and you find a whirlpool dragging everything into it:

NYTimes: “Governments Go to Extremes as the Downturn Wears On”

And yes, this story is an old one. It has been written before, and will be written again. But are there new elements in play?

Metafilter: “Rich get richer, poor get poorer…” (2005)

NYTimes: “Class and the American Dream” (2005)

Barbara Ehrenreich: “Nickle and Dimed” (2001)

Barlett and Steele “America: Whole Stole the Dream? The Have-Mores and Have-Lesses” (1996)

What about the children? Well it *is* about them. And it’s about you.

So far, I have been able to provide a better life for my daughter than that was provided me. Richelle and I are building a platform that she can choose where to take flight from when the day is right. She has childhood friends, a stable home with lots of structured and unstructured play time, lots of singing, dancing, crafting, family and love. Especially love. This is part of the Dream, being able to provide a better life for our children, if so choosing, and I count my lucky stars I am able to do so.

People tell me I have my own hard work to thank for this, and I did work hard, but there is much more. You can’t discount the time or place I was born to, the people I’ve met along the way who have given a helping hand or advice, and the health I’ve been blessed with. When I look around me I realize my journey, from generational poverty to the middle class, is rare, and increasingly so.

Change the rules of the game.

It looks sometimes that George Carlin was right, that it’s called ‘The American Dream‘ for a reason.

Well, one of my earliest bosses in programming, Pat, a fellow who became first a true mentor, then a friend, had pinned to his cubicle wall the following from Peter Senge:

The committed person brings an energy, passion, and excitement that cannot be generated if you are only compliant, even genuinely compliant.

The committed person doesn’t play by the rules of the game. He is responsible for the game.

If the rules of the game stand in the way of achieving the vision, he will find ways to change the rules.

A group of people truly committed to a common vision is an awesome force. They can accomplish the seemingly impossible.

Call me naive but I believe in this.

If ever there was a time to get involved, it is now. And there are ways to make difference, whether they be mentoring someone like myself, volunteering time to help those less fortunate, by becoming a more conscious consumer, or by applying skills in a way to build tools and infrastructure for the foundation that all this requires:

Code For America

Clay Johnson: “Don’t Let the Municipal Crisis Go to Waste”

Ushahidi and Swift River

Crisis Commons Wiki

Tim O’Reilly: “What is Gov 2.0? Come find out”

This was the first block party on our block. My neighbors did a terrific job organizing this and it turned out fantastic. If the Dream does require me to be asleep to see it, then yesterday never happened, surrounded by great neighbors, great friends, and great family.