Monday, April 18, 2016

The American Dream is alive and well

Recently, I received an email quoting a Baptist minister that started:

The American dream ended on November 6th, 2012 in Ohio.  The second term of Barack Obama has been the final nail in the coffin for the legacy of the white Christian males, who discovered, explored, pioneered, settled and developed the greatest republic in the history of mankind.

“A coalition of blacks, Latinos, feminists, gays, government workers, union members, environmental extremists, the media, Hollywood, uninformed young people, the "forever needy," the chronically unemployed, illegal aliens and other "fellow travelers” have ended Norman Rockwell's America.”

There are a lot of emotional hooks embedded in this openly racist screed.  However, I am unpersuaded.  Having grown up in the Melting Pot of New York, I don’t think of America as a monolith of white Christian males.  In my view, the American Dream is the product of hard-working immigrants, many of whom are not white, Christian or male.

Moreover, I don’t think the American dream has ended.

I would guess I am swimming against the tide of public opinion.  Rasmussen reports that about 70% of the public thinks we’re on the wrong track. Many are enamored of Donald Trump because he speaks to the trends that disrupted the 20th Century economic model that made them secure.

But, this isn’t the 20th Century and our challenges aren’t the result of a lack of jobs.  They are the result of a lack of skilled applicants.  McKinsey reports that “[i]n advanced economies, demand for high-skill labor is now growing faster than supply, while demand for low-skill labor remains weak.”  They further predict that there will be a global shortage of workers with the skills demanded by the 21st Century economy while the cohort of low-skilled workers will grow by over 90 million, resulting in an oversupply of 11 million such workers. 

If we are to address income inequality – if we want to “make America great again” -- we should start right here. 

Birth rates are declining in the industrialized world just as the Baby Boom generation is retiring in great numbers.  The American Dream is our greatest weapon in the competition for immigrants.  We need more engineers and well educated technical people than our education system can produce in the next decade.

Writing for, Leila Janah asserts that the challenges go to the heart of our education system.  “Community colleges… have a 70% dropout rate nationwide,” she reports.  “And even when people do manage to finish, they emerge with training that doesn’t equip them to succeed in the new economy – skills like marketing one’s talents in an online profile, submitting applications for project-based work, and developing new skills using on-line resources.”

Ms. Janah is associated with Rework America a private initiative whose goal is to harness the energies of “entrepreneurs, educators, technology leaders, CEOs, diplomats, community activists [and] religious leaders”… to “expand opportunities for employment … for all Americans to learn and train for the work of the future.”  Such efforts are more likely to achieve results for workers than any government program. 

To achieve the American Dream, 21st Century workers will need to project themselves into the future rather than pine for the past.  Don't expect government to provide the answer. You must make the right choices.

The Bernie Sanders ad running in NY goes like this:  “if you’re doing everything right and finding it harder and harder to get by, you’re not alone.”

We need to modify that message thusly: if you're doing everything right and finding it harder and harder to get by, you’re not doing everything right.



  1. Joe Fay I think the globalization of the economy and the coincident increase in competition faced by everyone has particularly burdened those without higher education and skills. If cheap labor in China can produce inexpensive goods then the American differential advantage needs to be, as it always has been, based on education and innovation. There was a brief moment of working class paradise in America post-World War II, and it's gone. Eliminating free trade or hankering for a return to the past won't stop it, any more than blaming diversity.

    That said, it's easy for those of us in MENSA to feel a little insulated. I am the only member of my extended family's generation to go to college, to say nothing of grad school. Yes, I am persistent as hell, but I am also fortunate to be really smart. I empathize with those who don't have that advantage, because I don't know that persistence alone is enough.

    How can we help those with IQ's in the average range? To me, that's a useful question.

  2. alph Michalske, MBA Hi John,

    I like your characterization that, "if you're doing everything right and finding it harder and harder to get by, you're not doing everything right.". This is truly a new way of calibrating our performance in the 21st century. The Norman Rockwell era for America is past. My sympathy goes out to that Baptist minister who wrote you an email. As time goes on, it will be more difficult to preserve popular notions and ideas of the past. A good example of this is, who reads anything in the Declaration of Independence beyond the preamble? The injustices of King George III are no longer applicable. We only remember these things from a historic point and keep them in an archive.

    The Norman Rockwell era was a major upgrade from colonial times in America. We are due for another upgrade, but it won't be accomplished by going backwards as some "wanna be" political leaders suggest. We need to progress steadfastly into this new century for America.

    Being overly reminiscent, reactionary, or conservative won't make things better for all Americans. It may be fun to remember the good old days of Norman Rockwell, but our society has changed to due to an inrush of diversity. Your idea, "if you're doing everything right and finding it harder and harder to get by, you're not doing everything right." is a good, clear way to think how America will change for the better in this new century.

  3. Great comments (as always), Ralph. I just started reading Revolutionary Summer by Joseph Ellis. Last night, I was reading about the process by which the Declaration was finalized. Great lessons about our cultural underpinnings in there. Like you, I feel like that grounding has been lost.

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  5. Joe Fay it's a world-wide economy. it wasn't in the past. being smart, hungry, and able to work well with others is always best

  6. Lauren Haas Can someone please define "The American Dream" for me, as it's being used in this post? Was a clear definition given and I'm missing it?

    I've seen this term defined as everything from home ownership to entrepreneurship to upward mobility (...

  7. Randy Brinson People often give little notice to a key role of the President: Cheerleader-in-Chief. The occupant of the Oval Office has more influence over the optimism or pessimism of Americans than any other person. That power was wielded very effectively by FDR and Reagan; not so much by Ford and Carter. This is important because expectancy feeds self-fulfilling prophesy.

    The Unity in "USA" is increasingly threatened by special interest groups that demand preferential treatment. It's hard to unite 300 million+ people in support of retaining (reclaiming?) the American Dream when many feel disenfranchised and/or despised as a result of nationality, gender, age, disability, education, religion, etc.

    Certainly the next President's task of crafting the policies -- let alone funding them -- needed to buttress the American Dream will require unprecedented skill and a corps of extraordinary advisers . I suspect it will be about as easy as herding 325 million cats coast-to-coast. Good luck POTUS!

  8. Joe Fay The American Dream is that your children will be better off than you; home ownership, college education, and professional employment are usually aspirational hallmarks for blue-collar families. For white collar families I think it's producing a doctor, lawyer, or tech billionaire. The underlying premise is that many of our families came from elsewhere for a better life.

  9. Joe Fay The ostensible difference harks back to the original colonizers and American Exceptionalism. It was, at one time, a country unknown to Europeans and thus, in their view, a "City of a Hill". Australia was a penal colony, I think. Belgium is part of Europe, from which immigrants to America fled to avoid (ironically, given our current state of affairs) religious prosecution.

  10. James E. (Jeb) Bowdoin, MS, PMP, CISSP, CSSGB I'm not so sure it's alive and well.

  11. Phillip Parker The American dream ended for the good reverend because he felt the white anglo-saxon protestant male had lost his dominance, which, in fact, he has not, although it has been considerably loosened. That demographic still has a better chance of rising to the top than most of the others.
    The idea that if you’re not making it, you must be doing something wrong will be true in some cases, but not in others. No matter how good we make our schools or how much we improve vocational training opportunities, there is going to be a sizable cohort of workers unsuited for the high-tech economy. They’re not dumb, and they’re not lazy, they just don’t have that talent. As Jeb’s Atlantic article pointed out, there are a lot of people doing everything within their capability who are still living on the edge. If it were truly a global economy, our unskilled workers could go to China where there are unskilled jobs available, but they cannot. Capital is mobile, but unskilled labor isn’t.

  12. Chuck Rosselle I think a thoughtful person in the late 1800's would likely find our current societal woes familiar. Economic disruption, the disappearance of familiar work and extreme economic polarization along class lines. Whenever significant economic disruption occurs, particularly due to technological change, it creates social turmoil as familiar ways of life become obsolete and irrelevant.

    The same two classes become the most agitated; inflexible lower skilled workers who fear the system no longer works for them and the inflexible well to do who strongly resist change due to fear for their well being.

    Not to be trite but as in most periods of change, the flexible early adopters are the ones who do best. Immigrants are often well positioned to adapt since they have fewer preconceptions.