How the “American Dream” killed the American Dream

The Thinker by Rodin

The truth is, I think of Tom a lot. Tom and I go back to fourth grade. He was the new kid in class and unlike any of the other boys there he was a bit geeky like me. So we struck up a friendship. Decades later we are still friends, but we are bicoastal. I’m still on the east coast; he’s on the west coast near Portland, Oregon.

We lost touch with each other for a long time. My family moved south to Florida. His call was advertising, which took him various places further and further west, including Alaska. Tom is a brilliant at advertising and art in general. Frankly, my talents were far less impressive than his. For a long time I didn’t know what I wanted to do. My BA in Communications was largely worthless. It was the rise of computers, the dearth of talent in a rising industry and my willingness to get into a rising field that finally gave me a calling that paid. This led to a career largely working for Uncle Sam, a master’s degree that came later in life at age 42, and retiring in 2014 on a comfortable pension.

Tom, truly the more talented of us, wasn’t so fortunate. Both of us are now age sixty plus. Tom works in an industry that worships the young. Tom has worked for many advertising agencies over the years. These turned increasingly into gig jobs. Younger talent, more conversant in the nuances of social media and willing to work for cheap, tended to get the work instead of him. Mostly he worked for himself. Huge economic forces like the 2008 recession left him reeling. He’s had some ups since then but arguably more downs than ups. Tom is hardly alone.

I am the exception. It’s unnatural to retire at age 57 these days. Only the rules of an old civil service system let me do so. Pensions are getting hard to find, but I got one. It pays for the bulk of my retirement, but I also have a 401K to supplement my income. I also am not quite unemployed. I do some consulting from home, and a little teaching as an adjunct too.

As for Tom, he is scrambling. I’m sure he does advertising gigs when he can get them. His talent though is undiminished, just largely not recognized anymore. Mostly he is scrambling. His most recent “gig” was working at a local Amazon distribution center, working the night shift for a small pay differential. Amazon was shamed into raising wages to $15/hour, so he’s earning a bit more than that. I’m sure his wife is working too. Clinging to their middle class life must be excruciatingly hard with two boys to raise.

How did this happen? It’s been driving me nuts, and filling me with something akin to survivor’s guilt. Granted, I really like retirement, but it feels like a gilded life. It’s not too hard to imagine me in Tom’s shoes. Through someone’s grace I got lucky. Tom didn’t get that grace.

It’s Tom and millions like him. They were supposed to live the American Dream and it was supposed to work for them, as it had for his parents. You educate yourself, you try your hardest, you give the best of yourself and you expect to get rewarded. It worked for Tom for a while, until it stopped. It wasn’t because Tom suddenly became less talented. It was because someone moved his cheese.

An early factor was that Tom dropped out of college. It didn’t stop him from getting into some great ad agencies and even teaching college for a while, but the student loans dried up. His father got his education from the GI Bill that paid all his tuition. Tom never joined the military. Tom’s father also rode a successful career with IBM as an engineer, which gave him a generous pension. You can’t get a pension if you work for IBM anymore.

In short, the American Dream left Tom behind, and he’s a smart white guy like me, supposedly a privileged sex and race. It probably would have left me behind too had not I sensed opportunity in this computer thing, made the best of it, and got lucky. It also helped that I made a career working for the government. There were times when I didn’t like the work, but the bills got paid regularly and I had only one incidence of unemployment.

The American Dream is that if you work hard and apply yourself you can live a reasonably prosperous life, one better than your parents’. The dream is that there will be opportunities there for you and that with persistence and tenacity you too can claim them. For a while, it was the American reality, not just a dream. It wasn’t for everyone of course, but for white men like Tom’s dad and mine it was.

The reality though is that the American Dream wasn’t so much a dream as it was the American system. The “Dream” was made possible by progressive government. The GI Bill funded not only Tom’s father’s education, but also my father’s. Without it, it’s unclear if he too would have gotten his engineering degree. He might have swept floors instead. There were plentiful scholarships for the talented, but also student loans. There were beneficent companies willing to invest in employees for the long term. Both our fathers had such employers. Climbing the ladder was possible because there were many rungs and they were fairly easy to climb.

Since about the time of President Reagan, the tables have turned. Pensions became 401Ks, if your employer even offered a 401K. Student loans became less generous, had higher interest rates and became harder to pay off. The cost of living in general went crazy, with housing disproportionately harder to afford. The cost to buy a ticket on the American Dream kept getting pricier: tuitions skyrocketed, class sizes swelled anyhow but the career you often aimed for often turned into something you could not market profitably. It happened to me with a BA in Communications and would have brought me down too had I not found an aptitude in information technology and low entry requirements at the time. Now, more of us have advanced degrees than ever. They just don’t buy us much. For example, there is my friend Tim who I met when we both worked retail. He has a PhD and earns his living largely through a lot of adjunct teaching. It doesn’t pay very well.

The American Dream used to come with a support system that made it possible. Now that support system is gone. The one that exists is mom and dad, if they are wealthy enough. Unsurprisingly, these people are the ones who are most likely to attain it and prosper. We have decided not to make the investment that makes the American Dream possible. Unsurprisingly a lot of people like my friends Tom and Tim arguably fell through the cracks. A few, like me, got lucky anyhow. But rather than making me feel good, it just makes me feel sick.