We are living, in some ways, the worst of times, and in some ways the best. I’m speaking of the United States seemingly intent on destroying itself out of fear, frustration, and the need to be right. I could talk more about that, but there is something else to think about. Something that’s been plaguing us even before the virus. That something is the “American Dream”.
What is the American Dream?
It’s definition in people’s hearts has changed considerably. Think about the following statements and see if any resonate with you:
- The American Dream means that I have the opportunity to achieve health, wealth, and happiness.
- The American Dream means that if I work hard, I can achieve anything.
- The American Dream means that I have agency in my life, that I choose my own path, my own values, and my own way of being in the world.
- The American Dream means that I have the right to own property and manage it as I see fit.
- The American Dream means that I have the right to protect my family, group, community, property, etc…
- The American Dream means that I have the right to have all basic needs met, in order to free me up to pursue my path.
- The American Dream means that being able to move up in life is possible for everyone.
- The American Dream means being able to achieve your dreams without having to go into debt.
- The American Dream means being able to go further than your parents did.
- The American Dream means all people are equal.
- The American Dream means being able to live the Good Life with a happy family, a great home, and to be able to follow your passion.
There are a lot of ways to think about the American Dream. You probably can add a few more entries. I’m going hit on a few of these ideas with some questions and some observations.
A Happy Family
One of the things I’ve been noticing in the Age of the Virus, is how family has been becoming more important. They always were important, but they’ve also taken back seat to everything else implied by the American Dream.
For decades now, we’ve been outsourcing care and education of our families. Not because we don’t care, but because we do care. We want to be able to provide the nice home, the good schools, and the great experiences. In a capitalistic society where we rate money as the yardstick, making money is primary.
Back in my day, they called us “Latchkey Kids.” We got ourselves to school and back, let ourselves into the house, monitored our own homework, and often cooked and cleaned, all before the parents got home from work.
Today, doing that would be considered neglect. Instead there are nannies, day cares, and after school programs. All of which costs money. Sometimes, a lot of money. This translates to needing to work even more, to move up even faster.
Things I’ve seen or heard about during the quarantine:
- A father and son running together
- Families walking together
- Families in the yard playing
- Parents taking on the challenge of education
- Employers being lenient with employees with children
- Employers taking life/work balance more seriously
- Creative images and videos shot and edited by entire families
- Chalk art, rock art, and other creative activities springing up – often with invitations for others to join in
- Stories of children with problems finally being able to relax and heal
- Parents learning how to talk about the hard topics, and children learning about the world
- People learning what they really need to flourish and taking steps by starting gardens, learning new skills, and more
What a beautiful thing! And all because we all have to stay home.
Question to ponder: Is your version of the American Dream more important than that?
The Beautiful House
We’ve all heard the phrase “Keeping up with the Joneses.” What does that mean anyway? It means comparing yourself to others, finding yourself wanting, and then striving to surpass them. It’s a merry-go-round that never ends and it’s propagated by the media and advertising. Why? Because if you feel that lack, you will do what you can to relieve it. It’s a ready-made stream of money moving into someone else’s pockets.
It can be anything. It can be the restaurants you go to, the clothes you wear, and the car you drive.
But nothing is more obvious of your status than where you live, how you live, and how big you live.
I live in Seattle. We have no income tax and most of money the state collects come from property owners. Every time there is an initiative put forth, they also include how much extra tax they’ll have to tax the homeowners to achieve the initiative. Homeowners’ taxes keep going up.
I’m not even a homeowner and I find it annoying.
But that’s not the end of it. Another way of increasing tax revenue is to increase the value of the property.
There is a house about 3 blocks away from me that has 5 bedrooms and 1.75 bathrooms. It’s asking price was $1,290,000. And it sold, quickly. First, who has that kind of money? And second, it only has 1.75 baths! That’s not enough for a 5-bedroom house! Heck, I need my own bathroom!
Houses are going for these types of prices all over Seattle. Apartments are extremely expensive. Many people have to work 2-3 jobs to afford a room for rent.
I Have the Right to Own my Own Home
“I have the right to own my own home.” I’ve heard this a lot in my life. What this ends up translating into is that not only do I have a right to own my own home, I SHOULD own my own home. Owning a home is how I show the world I’m adult. Owning a great home shows the world I’m successful. I have no choice; I must own my own home.
It’s being pushed at us by the media, advertising, and even by each other. “Nice house! Of course, I have a sunken hot tub in the backyard.” It’s become a need, an imperative, and people respond.
Back to Seattle. What happens here is that even as property values go up, people feel the need to own a home so they find the best that they can barely afford, and the state collects taxes.
But what happens when things go sideways? Many of these people are buying homes they can barely afford as it is. They are house poor. They go nowhere and do nothing. They must work harder and harder just to keep up the payments. Then, a recession happens, or someone loses their job, the home is foreclosed without the homeowner reaping anything, and the bank resells the house and starts over. Mortgages are given out freely because odds are, they’ll get the property back. And they often do.
It reminds me of the used car lots that say “No credit? No problem!” If customer reads the fine print, you miss one payment and the car is repossessed. It’s a cash cow.
Families end up on the street, homeless, every recession. Some barricade themselves in the house and trash it before they are forced out. The people across the street from me one place I lived did that. There wasn’t even a roof.
Question to ponder: Is your version of the American Dream so important that you would risk your family to achieve it?
The Great Job
This one is the most insidious version of the American Dream. It affects everything. It goes something like this: In order to be successful, I must get the raise, get the promotion, get the corner office, get the jet, and work for the best company. It’s another merry-go-round and it also never ends. It also increases pressures on families and homeownership.
It might go something like this:
- You get that raise.
- That means you can afford the better car with the higher insurance.
- You get that promotion.
- That means you can either buy a house, or upgrade your house to reflect your position
- Now that you’ve upgraded your position, your family expects to live better as well, so you provide for it.
- You’re now on that path, to keep up with it, you must defend your position in the company and keep moving up. So, you do.
- Expectations keep increasing as do pressures.
- You’ve achieved so much! And now loss-aversion kicks in and you become concerned you won’t be able to keep it up, so you work even harder.
- Hard work as paid off! You have become a CEO in your company.
- Of course, things have to upgrade as well.
- The pressure is really on now. Not only are you responsible for the entire company, you have to go before the board every month to justify your job and your salary. You have to prove you’re worth it.
- Home? What’s Home? You’re working all the time. Sometimes you don’t make it home. Or you’re on the road too much.
- Your health starts to suffer. You become dependent on prescription drugs and caffeine. You might have a bottle of Scotch in your locked drawer.
- Since you have such a high-powered job, your spouse is probably doing everything at home, and they are suffering as well. They might have 2pm Martini breaks every day.
- The kids are too much to deal with and so they are farmed out to boarding schools or tutors. They become distant from their parents. They might be smoking that whacky tobacci or shooting up heroin.
- You are under so much pressure you end up having a heart attack.
- You have to work even harder to make up for the insufficient time you spent recuperating.
- Something happens at work. A mistake was made that cost the company millions or even billions. You are responsible for everything that happens to the company and so they replace you.
- Maybe you get a severance and maybe not. It might depend on how close you are to the board, and how bad the screw up is. And sometimes how corrupt the company is.
- You now have to go home and face your spouse and kids with the news.
- By then, they may not even care about you anymore.
Question to ponder: Is your version of the American Dream so important that you would risk your family and everything you could have, in a non-tangible way, to achieve it?
Rethinking the American Dream
I want to ask you something. What is your version of the American Dream? Is it sustainable? Or are you killing yourself and your family to achieve it? Do what the neighbors think actually matter? What is the actual yardstick you’re measuring with? Is it static? Or does it change as you move forward? Does what you are trying to achieve bring you and your family joy? If it doesn’t, why are you doing it?
In a big way, I’m not the best arbiter of the American Dream. I’ve never truly felt the pressure. I’ve never owned property. I haven’t had a car in 9 years. And even though I’m 56, I’m still filing a 1040EZ form at tax time. I’m okay with. I did a cost/benefit analysis when making my decisions.
Why not own a house, Karin?
Glad you asked. I have lots of reasons.
- The sheer amount of paperwork and dealing with inspectors, mortgage officers and other assorted people.
- The upkeep. Do I really want to have to deal with maintenance and upkeep on the house? It’s never ending! Do I really want to deal with the yard? Or the oven being on the fritz? No! I want call the owner of the apartment and have them take care of it.
- The amount of money. I don’t have that kind of money, even if I do get a 50-year mortgage. (I’ve had a realtor offer it to me. I like to tour houses, just not own them.) I’d be paying a mortgage into my 100s. Plus, I have things I want to do with my life. Owning a house doesn’t make up for not doing anything.
- The insecurity of property values and taxes. I can’t control them. It’s a stressor I don’t need.
- It’s permanent, relatively. I tend to think of myself as a transient, even though I’m not really. I like to be able to pick up and go if I must.
- Defending the house. Against burglars and people sleeping in the back yard when I’m not looking. (I’ve seen people in Seattle being chased out of the backyard.) Plus, having to defend the house makes it more important than my own life. For me, that’s simply not true. We’ve all heard of the old guy refusing to evacuate because “No one is going make me leave my home. It’s MY home!” Yeah, that’s not me.
Why not own a car, Karin?
I live in Seattle where they’re trying to encourage mass transit. If you own a car, not only do you have payments to make and insurance to pay, but you also have to pay for a parking spot at your apartment and a parking spot at your work. That’s hundreds of dollars a month!
If I want to go somewhere not easily accessible by mass transit, or if’s late at night, I call Lyft and someone takes me where I want to go. So much easier and cheaper.
That said, if I moved back to Omaha or something like Omaha, I would need a car. And I would enjoy the hell out of a car. Heck, maybe my brother Kelly would let me buy his Jeep! Manual cars are the best!
Why doing you have a family, Karin?
Er…it just didn’t happen. Plus, I didn’t have many role models. I’m okay with it, you don’t need to feel sorry for me.
What’s your problem, Karin?
I think the reason the American Dream never hooked me was because I’m very aware of how quickly things can change, how quickly things can be taken away. I’ve lost everything several times and was even homeless for a short while. My sense of positivity and trust are not high.
I have my own gauge to determine how I feel about my situation:
- A safe place to live
- Clean sheets and clothing
- Food to eat. If I can afford bacon, I’m doing great.
- The ability to do what I want, which for me, is classes and learning. It’s the Age of the Virus and I’m starting a Second City class at the end of the month and a Cinema class today.
- To be able to treat myself sometimes. At the moment, since I can’t go to the store and look through the sale racks, I have an Oculus Quest on its way. I’ll get it on July 17th. VR baby! I even know my first game (Beat Saber)
I remember a friend coming over for dinner. She ransacked my cabinets looking for my salad spinner. I told her “I have 3 plates; do you really think I have a salad spinner?”
I went through the last recession thriving on unemployment, that’s how small my footprint is. And unemployment is not structured to be lived on.
Now, I’m not saying you should be like me, oh no! The economy would completely collapse if everyone were like me. But I’m certain that there are things that you either don’t want to do, or affect you in ways that hurt you.
Questions to ponder: What is your definition of the American Dream? Is it working for you? What do you truly value? And… What are you going to do now?