The Evolution of the American Dream

Something as powerful as the American dream (the engine beneath the modern economic system), hasn’t stayed the same since it ignited three centuries ago.  It evolved to meet new challenges, which implies it will evolve again to meet the challenges we face today.

One of the changes to the dream occurred in response to industrialization.  Here’s an example.   It’s currently popular to substitute Ben Franklin’s original formulation of the dream “work hard and deal honestly with others” with  “work hard and play by the rules. ”

Why did the wording change?  The simple answer is industrialization changed our thinking.  Industrialization introduced us to three games that claim to deliver more success than honest dealings:

  • The bureaucratic game.  Credentials.  Degrees.  Certifications.  Moving up the ladder.  Checking the boxes to get ahead (or not, as the occupy kids found out).  From government to medicine to academia.
  • The market game.  Lottery thinking.  There’s a sucker born every minute.  Windfalls and bubbles.  The person with the most gold at the end wins.
  • The legal game.  Law as warfare.   Bankrupting opponents and contractual servitude.  Legal games replacing real work.   You didn’t read the fine print.

Of course, all three of these games are irretrievably broken as we  They don’t deliver prosperity to the vast majority of people, only a few.  Further, they don’t deliver any spiritual payoff by following this path, just a cavernous feeling of a life wasted (if not by the individual, by the people around him/her).

Industrialization also dealt the knockout blow to the role of the family home in helping people achieve the American Dream.  How?  Through a combination punch of:

  1. Competition from industrial corporations wiped out traditional sources of familial income derived at home.  1920’s – 30’s
  2. People lost their homes and fled to the cities, looking for work.  Rent replaced ownership.  1930’s – 40’s
  3. People eventually left the cities to buy homes in suburbia.  However, these homes weren’t built to be productive. 1950’s – 60’s.

Why didn’t people build productive homes in suburbia?   They believed that the games of bureaucracy, markets, and law would provide them with economic and spiritual prosperity.  These games didn’t (or if they did, it wasn’t for long).

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Discussion — One Response

  • Michael J. Lotus January 10, 2014 on 4:11 pm

    The three numbered paragraphs outlining the combination punch are correct. But the process was much more attenuated. Traditional sources of income derived at home were fading out by the mid-19th century as the country urbanized. By the 1920s-30s, the farm sector was already mostly gone as a source of productive homes. Rent replacing ownership also goes much further back. Good point about suburban homes. However, suburban homes were starting to be built a lot earlier. And you are correct that a common characteristic of these homes is that they are purely residential and not productive, with the possible exception of a professional office. (doctor, lawyer, accountant, music teacher, etc.) But the idea of an integrated living and productive space is certainly UNsuburban.