No tears shed over lost American dream
Wake up! The American Dream is over.Now hold on there, just calm down a minute. Don’t shoot the messenger. I knew you wouldn’t believe me. In fact, recent polls show that 75 percent of you are continuing to hit the snooze button and refusing to rouse to this new reality.But keeping your head wrapped under the covers for another seven minutes won’t change things. It is now more difficult to rise from the social class you were born into than it was 30 years ago. Evidence indicates that you have a better chance of climbing the social ladder in England, with all of their tradition stomping on your fingers as you reach.The beans were spilled recently by Janny Scott and David Leonhardt at The New York Times. They authored a series about economic mobility in the United States. You remember what economic mobility is, don’t you? It’s the promise that this country was founded on – that you, I or anyone, with hard work and a little savvy, can rise up to accept all of the economic prizes that capitalism can heap upon us if only we are strong enough to grab them. The possibility of mobility meant that the differences between the rich and poor didn’t amount to much, since moving from one group to the next was as easy as earning enough extra cash to change your dinner reservation from the Hickory House to The Little Nell. Apparently, it’s not that easy. According to a study by The Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, fewer U.S. families moved into higher statistical quintiles in the 1980s than did so in the 1970s. Even fewer moved up between the ’80s and ’90s. The trend is continuing into this century. Findings by the Bureau of Labor Statistics support this verdict.So what are the possible consequences of this news? Amherst College president Anthony Marx was quoted as saying: “If economic mobility continues to shut down, not only will we be losing the talent and leadership we need, but we will face a risk of a society of alienation and unhappiness. Even the most privileged among us will suffer the consequences of people not believing in the American dream.”Well, I hate to contradict this gloomy forecast, but I can envision a different scenario. Growing up here, the American Dream was always regarded as more of a nightmare. The prospect of a lifelong struggle to climb a never-ending series of societal rungs only to arrive at a place that rarely seemed to make anyone truly happy belonged with gated communities in the cities. We were protected from the superficial trappings of social status by rugged mountains to the east, searing deserts to the west and a local attitude that convinced us it was just a way for the extremely bored and unimaginative to keep track of their acquaintances.All anybody here cared about was to be blessed enough to see the sun rise over paradise just one more time tomorrow.We’ve always had social classes here; it’s just that nobody knew it. I still have a few friends about whom I have no idea how they can live like they do here. I hope I never find out. It wasn’t important for them to tell me about their finances 30 years ago and, thankfully, it still isn’t today. As far as anyone could tell, the most popular people in town were the ones who knew where the best skiing was, told the funniest stories or were somehow always there when you needed them. Over the past 50 years, there has been very little opportunity for economic mobility in Aspen. Yes, many people who bought houses back in the old days realized huge increases in their net worth. But guess what? They couldn’t spend that newfound wealth without selling their slice of heaven. Those that it didn’t matter to stuck around. Those that thought the prestige of spending power was important cashed out, left town and joined the rat race somewhere else, and we never had to deal with them again.Far from causing any kind of alienation or hopelessness around here, the virtual impossibility of moving upwards to the next economic class was extremely liberating. What point was there in trying to compete with the absolute wealthiest people in the world in a tedious game of mountain Monopoly? There was no possible way to do it, and it wasn’t nearly as fun as skiing anyway.Our lack of attention made the wealthy lose interest in the game too. Most of them found it very refreshing to be accepted for who they were, not for what they had. I’m telling you, it was very cool around here. By now some of you are telling yourselves that what happened here was un-American. You believe we were a lazy bunch of underachievers. But I say look again. Undoubtedly, most of the town was on something, but as a whole it looks like we were onto something too. It was so American around here, in fact, that we were about 30 years ahead of the rest of the country in coming to terms with the myth of the American Dream.We weren’t working 16 hours a day only to find ourselves in an unenlightened middle age realizing that we’d been living in cubicles, glancing occasionally at snapshots of another brief life tacked to the carpeted walls. We learned early that beating our heads against the wall only made us lose our hair. Aspen kids weren’t overscheduled. It wasn’t a problem if test scores showed we were only average. The nameplates on our cars didn’t matter as much as the adventures they could carry us to. We valued good friends, reasonable work and avoided bad karma at any cost.So I’m not worried about the death of the American Dream. It always seemed a little fuzzy to me anyway, and I couldn’t help being a little bored hearing it recounted over and over again. When the rest of our country wakes up, I think we can tell them about a new dream to take its place. Until then, let’s live it.Roger Marolt wonders if you can have any dreams if stress keeps you awake all night. Wake him up at firstname.lastname@example.org
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