How did I become an American?
My dad was the first born American in his family. I am the fourth of his five children and have one of my own. Today, I am an empty nester trying to figure out where I want to take the next chapter. I traveled to distant lands, then came back to explore my own: America, named after the Italian explorer, Amerigo Vespucci. He didn’t have an American Dream, he only wanted quicker passage from Portugal to Asia.
What is the American Dream?
If we travel back in time to 1931, we learn where the phrase might have originated. Historian James Truslow Adams stated in his book Epic of America, "The American Dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement."
Beth Banks, a friend of mine who has been traveling in an RV across America with her husband for a few years now said, "In my mind, the American Dream is the idea that you can come from nothing and build a life for yourself/your family through hard work, smarts, and opportunism."
Let’s assess the concept by first flying forward from Adams’ day to 1948 when brand guru, David Ogilvy urged advertisers to understand: "What are you selling?" Why are you selling it?" and "Who is buying it?"
Now, jump to 1964 when the father of communications, Marshall McLuhan, explained how the medium we choose to convey a message, directly influences how the message is perceived, and coined the famous phrase, "The Medium is The Message."
If we zoom through the last few years, ooh wow, that's hard, isn't it? There's so much traffic! This trip could take a while. To expedite things let’s consider, if the medium is our Nation, and the content coming out of it is the message:
What Is America Selling?
John Zogby in his report: The Way We'll Be defined the American Dream in two main groups. The first group, a third of his study, he called, The Traditional Materialists. He defined this group as those who feel the dream is financial success: to buy more stuff, have a bigger house with land around it, etc. Those who fall into the Traditional Materialists category feel a house is a quintessential dream component.
Beth believes she achieved some measure of that version of the American Dream, "I am smart, I worked hard, sometimes shitty, low-paying dead-end jobs, (sometimes two of those at once!) and took opportunities where I saw them. But I was also very lucky; I didn't come from nothing; I am straight, white, educated and relatively attractive. I had opportunities and people helped me." Beth’s mom supported her early on and she fell into an industry (technology) at a time when it was growing exponentially. She got invaluable on-the job-training and made a career of it. Her husband was with a start up and got stock options that allowed them to put a down payment on a nice house, and they sent their kids to private high school. "We worked all the time though," she admits.
I could say the same. My ex and I worked day jobs, went to Portfolio Center in Atlanta to get extra training in advertising, then got a corporate job as a creative team at agencies in New York and Atlanta. We worked nonstop and as a married team it became 24/7. We bought our first house in the Norman Rockwell suburb of Avondale Estates in Atlanta. We had a baby. We tried to live a version of the dream. It boomed then bombed. The high stress of our job and parenthood wasn't sustainable for both of us.
At least, we got a taste of it. The two-job Janes and Joes with "can't-wait-until-it's-Miller-time faces that permeated my rearview mirror on my road trip along I-20 didn't look as if they would ever have the Traditionalists version of the dream home. Beth agreed, "Not everyone escapes the grip of poverty or addictions or health problems or wins the lottery of supportive family, decent education, right industry, right time, etc. I feel like a lot of people are trapped in that spot where poverty costs you so much, it keeps you from ever escaping it."
When I drove through Jackson, Mississippi, it felt as stuck in the mud of the haves and have nots as it did when I attended the first International Ballet Competition in the 70s. Dallas on the other hand seemed to be busting with Texas oil pride more than it did when I escaped there from TCU in the 80s. Big white trucks were everywhere. Little did they know that a hundred-plus-billion dollar financial storm would hit their state's coast.
In his November 9, 2017 article on weforum, Alberto Gallo, Portfolio Manager and Head of Macro Strategies, Algebris Investments explained when the American Dream came in the form of credit: “Private debt outgrew GDP four times in the US and Europe over the following decades up to the 2008 financial crisis, accompanied by the deregulation of financial markets and of banks.” John Quelch explained in a Harvard Business School, Working Knowledge OP-ED: Selling Out The American Dream, "The American Dream has been transformed from an embodiment of the country's core values into a crass appeal to materialism and easy gratification."
Who's Buying It?
Considering the 2017 Current Population Survey (CPS), 27% of the U.S. population is made up of immigrants who have come for a better life. Their numbers and their U.S.-born children make up approximately 86.4 million people. As far, as U.S. citizens are concerned, based on a CNBC article by Shawn M. Carter, "Fewer than one in five Americans feel like they're living the American Dream.” Her statistics come from Hearth Insights' 2017 State of the American Dream report. Contributing editor, Erik Sherman’s statistic for his October 1, 2017 headline in Forbes came from Pew Charitable Trust: “77% Of Americans Don't Believe The Iconic Rags-To-Riches American Dream.”
Based on other statistics, we can't afford what we are selling. Helaine Olin in her book Pound Foolish explained, "Housing, health care, and education cost the average family 75 percent of their discretionary income in the 2000s. The comparable figure in 1973: 50 percent." Nearly 39 million households can't even afford housing, and what I’d call the, “flip-money-pits” are draining the ones who can.
Does It Deliver?
Common indicators for the state of our nation include consumer spending levels, national debt, stock market analytics, and GDP (Gross Domestic Product). However, in the September 18, 2017 Fast Company post, The End Of Capitalism Is Already Starting–If You Know Where To Look, journalist, Eillie Anzilotti, quotes New School University professor, Richard Wolff who said, “Americans are getting closer and closer to understanding that they live in an economic system that is not working for them, and will not work for their kids.” Carol Graham, author of Happiness for All? Unequal Hopes and Lives in Pursuit of the American Dream explained in The Guardian, "While 90% of the children born in 1940 ended up in higher ranks of the income distribution than their parents, only 40% of those born in 1980 have done so." Ester Bloom in her CNBC article explained, "America's market-driven healthcare system is the most expensive in the world — and yet produces lackluster results, especially given how much patients are forced to spend.
Our healthcare system isn’t the only thing that doesn’t work. Our education system is failing. “In 2016, more than 48% of first-time, full-time students who started at a four-year college six years earlier had not yet earned a degree,” according to The College Dropout Problem written by Frederick Hess for Forbes. The public school system isn’t working either based on Washington Post reporter Valerie Strauss findings in her October 15, 2018 article How are America’s public schools really doing?. The Atlantic contributing editor, Ian Bogost doesn’t feel anything works. He explains in his article, Why Nothing Works Anymore, "The frequency with which technology works precariously has been obscured by culture’s obsession with technological progress, its religious belief in computation, and its confidence in the mastery of design. In truth, hardly anything works very well anymore."
How Are We Selling It?
The digital age has taken the face (and outer accouterments) of the upwardly mobile to exponential heights, 'look, look, look at me'. Mylio posted that InfoTrend estimated consumers would take 1.2 trillion photos in 2017. Imagine this tsunami of images along with a deluge of what Social Pilot posted as 35 million daily Facebook status updates, and 6,000 Tweets every second.
The dream in all its forms is sold on social media. Movies and advertising campaigns are still promoting it in traditional mediums. However, people in their insatiable quest to be the ultimate image of the dream are going live to sell consumer goods and getting paid well for it. Storage capacity can’t keep up with all the content we’ve created, we have to offload to an invisible cloud. In another Eillie Anziolotti Fast Company article, How the Telecom Industry is changing the shape of our cities, she quoted photographer Rian Dundon's observations: "The infrastructure, Dundon says, serves as a way to think about ideas and concepts that are largely invisible, namely, our creeping dependence on constant communication and data usage."
What Are The Costs?
As of November 2017, keeping up with the Jones' in pursuit of the American Dream put consumer debt up 8.8 percent to 3,827.2 trillion. As for the costs of our obsession with social networks, “God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains,” said former Facebook pioneer, Sean Parker, to the Times while also admitting the platform he helped create was designed to be a “social validation feedback loop” that consumes “as much of your time and conscious energy as possible.”
In The Express Tribune, Ahmad Ali Published: Social media 'more addictive than cigarettes and alcohol, "The research found that 91% of 16-24 year olds use the internet for social networking which has been described as more addictive than cigarettes and alcohol. The increased use of social media may have also led to higher rates of anxiety and depression in young people which have risen by 70% in the past 25 years."
The millions of people in relentless pursuit of the dream makes for a juggernaut on the time/space continuum. It’s frenetic. Content has surpassed contact. Friends and families scramble to make time for each other, but I could argue our heart isn't in it. Most of us have our heads down vigorously validating ourselves by airing every moment of our importance on social media.
The ritual has inadvertently unearthed the vile side of our nature - all the burps, gas, and excrement. Our society leaders can no longer hide like they could for eons behind the fog of stinky perfume called ‘Trust’. The bottle of that which the media devoted precious airtime to eulogize is now empty. It’s been replaced with a bigger charade and over indulgence in every thought, word, or deed so as to further clutter our brains with FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) diversions.
What Marketing Week’s Mark Ritson said of United’s CEO leadership skills after the April 2017 Chicago debacle could be applied to many American leaders: “This is modern, brand-centric leadership at its worst. More concerned with optics than actuals. More informed by internal PR teams than humanity or strategic responsibility.”
How are the costs affecting us as human beings?
"I know the people we meet on the road don't want to work in an office every day and put all their money into a mortgage anymore," said Beth who continued by saying, "It may be because they saw their parents do it and watched them get laid off instead of get pensions, or wake up in a house that wasn't worth half the mortgage on it. Maybe seeing that betrayal made them reject those things. Maybe housing prices in SF, NY, Seattle, Portland or Austin led them to pursue traveling in an RV, but I am just guessing. They may just love the new eyes travel gives you. Thats what keeps me excited about tomorrow."
People do still go to a place of work and despite Glassdoor access to insider brand experience and revelations like those from the author of Why Work Isn't Working Anymore, Jim Karger, Brand Expert and Forbes contributor, Denise Lee Yohn deemed the 2018 competitive frontier as, "The Year of Employee Experience." However, as of July 25, 2018, Qualtrics contributor, Campbell George reported in 18 Employee Experience Stats to Know in 2018 that despite the fact that companies get 2.5x more revenue when employees are engaged compared to the low engagement levels of their competitors (Hay Group), almost half the employers don’t have a plan to cultivate the skills needed in the workplace. (Deloitte Human Capital Trends). The Washington Post sites a trend that seems to be taking hold in the December 12, 2018 article, Workers are ghosting their employers like bad dates.
Alberto Gallo in his weforum article explains, “Promoting individual happiness as our utmost ethos is self-defeating, as deeply divided societies turn unstable and unhappy.” CBS Dennis Thompson in his article, More Amercians suffering from stress, anxiety and depression study finds, referred to a April 17, 2017 report in the journal Psychiatric Services, which included federal health data as well as national health data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that about 8.3 million adults (3.4% of population) suffer from serious psychological distress. Later in the year, Healthline, Depression: Facts, Statistics, and You, July 17, 2017 report almost doubled that stat to 16.7 million (6.7% of population) by considering American adults who’d had at least one depressive episode.
What's The Return?
We are coming to the end of 2018, and the indelible fact remains that work is still not working for us, along with our economic, education, and healthcare systems, and the draw of the American Dream as well as our place in it isn’t fostering positive human development. In fact, it could be making us sick.
Is It Time To Re-Brand?
In her Fast Company article, I'm Living Proof It's Time To Rebrand the American Dream, Eliana Giolando said, "To me, achieving the American Dream is no longer about accumulating money and property but about using my resources to maximize my freedom and individual impact.
Beth, Eliana, and I might fall into the other third of Zogby's population that he called The Secular Spiritualists. This part of his population redefined the American Dream by moving away from the materialistic view with goals bigger than one's self that leave a legacy where family, community, and planet are in a better place. Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”
Where Do We Begin?
Start simple, but that may be hard for some. Beth and her husband are down to an RV. I can fit what I want in a 10x15 storage bin and what I need in the trunk of my car. We don’t have to go to those extremes, but I recommend the exercise. If we think about it, the American Dream home is really just an expensive storage unit for our stuff. What do we really need? Read Marie Kondo’s books, or online sources like Simplify Magazine for insights. Learn more about the art of decluttering and overcoming busy-ness. Consume less. Limit choices of what to eat and wear to reduce daily decision-making. Cut down on digital detours. Shift FOMO into JOMO (joy of missing out). If we can pull away from the cacophony of choices and diversions that our consumer culture demands long enough, we can get back to our essence.
Who are we?
We are human. Physically, it means our opposable thumb can move farther across the hand than other primates. Scientifically, “One of the key characteristics that makes us human appears to be that we can think about alternative futures and make deliberate choices accordingly,” says Thomas Suddendorf Ph.D. in his 2014 Psychology Today article, What Makes Us Human?.
We can evaluate our strengths as a nation. As James Fallows wrote in the January/February 2010 issue of The Atlantic: How America Can Rise Again, James Fallows , "America has been strong because, despite its flawed system, people built toward the future in the 1840s, and the 1930s, and the 1950s."
We can evolve. Listen. Communicate. Find compassion for one another. Choose to be better people. Great humans with engaging stories built America. I'm not talking only the famous one's in our history books, but the nameless and invisible ones like those I saw during my travels. People who care enough to do the right thing at the right time, and don’t have a dollar figure associated with it. Many die without their story being told, only their impact felt.
What’s our story?
Ilya Vedrashko, SVP and Director of Research at Hill Holliday's consumer research arm, Origin, told Adweek. "Stories move not only people, but they also move product." Therefore, it seems like a win, win for even corporate America to find their humanity again.
Who are 'we the people' today and how do 'we the people' unite to succeed in a flawed system? What is our unique selling point? How much work, skill, and strategic responsibility are 'we the people' willing to give to recreate the story of The American Dream into something worth our while —something we are proud of that can influence others on a global scale?
I'm ready to help rewrite it. Are you?
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