January 31st, 2011 // 9:55 am @ Oliver DeMille
We still hear about the American Dream. But more and more it seems we’re in a Matrix-like dream state where our perceptions are being manipulated. It’s actually a pretty common plot in cinema: The Minority Report, The Sixth Day, Total Recall, Inception, The Adjustment Bureau and others riff on this theme. We’re living in a reality out-of-synch with some truth we’ve lost, and we don’t even realize it. Somehow our collective memory and our assumptions of “normal” are slowly morphing, and our definition of the American Dream at present is so far removed from the original concept as to be a pretty fair Doublespeak[i] idiom.
Back when the Cleavers[ii] and even the Bradys[iii] were the icons of American families, what was the definition of “The American Dream”? What did it mean to be “middle class”? There are some features of it that were fairly well accepted once upon a time:
1. Home Ownership I
Perhaps the most traditional measure of middle class and the American Dream is the ability for every man to be the king of his own castle. In this the U.S. was a beacon to the world, and other countries even began to adopt the value that every person might aspire to own his own dwelling. The historical and sociological significance of home ownership includes the moral and political empowerment of being “landed,” and affiliation with the natural aristocracy. Homeowners were believed to have a deeper sense of responsibility to invest in their property improvement, an elevated pride in and loyalty to their neighborhoods and communities, and a higher commitment to the good of society in general.
2. Home Ownership II
Now we have to dig a little deeper into our genetic memory. Home ownership a generation or three ago meant not only that you weren’t renting from somebody else, but after a maximum of thirty years in your home you weren’t renting it from the bank, either. A 30-year mortgage left the likes of Ward and June Cleaver without a house payment right about when the grandkids started showing up, and they were able to be a boon to their young married children as they were starting out. If the idea of Home Ownership I as a definition of “The American Dream” is still generally accepted (and I believe it is), the Home Ownership II definition has been deleted from our collective memory. Not only do we have a 30-year mortgage that gets refinanced ad infinitum, but we have seconds on our vanishing equity—and our seniors are living on the funds derived from reverse mortgages.
3. One Income
For the Cleavers and the Bradys, Home Ownership I and II were accomplished on one income. Dad had evenings and weekends for leisure; mom could volunteer with the PTA and community service organizations. Both could participate in book clubs, bowling leagues, gardening and other vocations. The Women’s Lib movement sent the modern woman into the workforce by choice; now Home Ownership II is entirely out of reach for the middle class, and Home Ownership I requires a minimum of two incomes—and often multiple jobs for an individual worker—in order to be a reality.
4. Two Cars
The family had a car—and later two. They were American made with pride, and they were built to last. Paid with cash from savings, or with a little help from the local bank, they were paid off long before they were sent to the salvage yard. Some families even scandalized the neighbors by giving each of their teens a car as soon as they were legal to drive.
5. College for Kids
Part of the understanding for middle class families was that they would be able to pay for their kids to get a college education. Now all that’s left of that understanding is the guilt for failing to live up to it. No one seriously expects one-income families to be able to pay off the house and cars and simultaneously send several kids to the University. Scholarships, loans, grants and lingering debt into the career years are now the means for those who want a college education.
6. Discretionary Income
With all of the above, it was still an expectation that a married couple could live within their means and have savings, investment, yearly vacations with the whole family at some destination spot, and still have a few dimes to rub together at the end of the month.
Ah, and after all this came the golden years. The Cleavers could now spend their expanded leisure time, afforded by an empty nest and the retirement from the company (complete with gold watch honors), in community service and nurturing the rising generation. They had savings, investments and retirement income to fall back on, a house and car paid free and clear, and the greatest resource: Leisure Time. They were elders in their community, and relied upon for wisdom.
The percentage of families enjoying these luxuries shrinks every year. Where did our American Dream go? Somehow, point by point, it has slipped away from us, and taken with it our definition of “middle class.” Would that we could wake up and reclaim the best of that dream; instead, we’ve awakened to a reality where our elusive American Dream is just out of reach; and these seven points that were once considered the legacy of any hard-working family are being deleted from our list of aspirations. If they are middle class expectations, the majority of America is no longer middle class.
[For a follow-up article on the how and why the middle class is shrinking, and how to reverse the trend, read Oliver’s article, “The Rule of Leisure,” featured in the February 2011 monthly newsletter for The Center for Social Leadership.
[i] See Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-four.
[ii] From the 1950 – 60s classic sitcom about the traditional nuclear family of Ward and June Cleaver, “Leave it to Beaver”.
[iii] From the classic 1970s sitcom about the non-traditional nuclear family of Mike and Carol Brady, “The Brady Bunch”.