What does the American Dream look like today? The survey I mentioned before talks about how many Americans today see the dream as being out of debt. Looking back over my life, I can see how things have changed dramatically, just in the last 20-30 years. When I was a kid, I didn’t just think about the possibility of owning my own home, I just assumed I would. I never considered credit cards, student loans, or any other type of debt. I just thought I’d go to college and then get a good job that would pay me enough money to do everything I wanted to do. And back in the ’80s, I think that might have still been the case. Yes, the environment was changing. There were financial crises which drove interest rates up. The dot-com crash in the ’90s played a significant role in many people’s lives. The economy was changing, not necessarily in a good way.
I look at my life now and think about the challenges I’m faced with. My husband is an electrician, going through a union trade school for 5 years in order to get his certification. Being an electrician is supposed to be a career, something you can provide for your family with. It used to be possible for a husband to have a job and for the wife to stay at home with the kids. Not today. Even with my husband moving up in his career over the years, it doesn’t seem likely that we will ever be able to own a home and live off of one income.
One might suggest it’s just the field, that if you get into another career it would still be possible to raise a family off one income. And yes, that is true for some people. But it is no longer the norm. Another great example I have would be my brother. After graduating from Cal Poly Pomona, he now works as a mechanical engineer. He married a wonderful girl who works in occupational therapy. Five years after college, they are still paying off their student loans. It will be another 5-10 years before they finish. In the meantime, they’d love to buy a house. Which, even with my brother’s great career, they can’t do without two incomes. My sister-in-law will have to continue working, even after having kids, in order to help pay off the student loans and pay a mortgage.
This is the situation that many Americans are facing today. We live in a country which fluctuates between two extremes. Rewarding the entrepreneur for his hard work and allowing him the take any salary home, no matter the cost to the average worker, and protecting the worker through legislation and the backing of labor unions. We went through a phase in the 1800’s where Big Business in America fought for laissez faire, or the idea to “let it be”. Allow businesses to run the way they want to. No government intervention necessary. While America should be a place of freedom for businesses to thrive, this also allows for very bad treatment of the average worker. That ended up being a huge mistake, causing much harm and suffering to the American people overall.
Today we struggle with the same issue. Should the government “let it be?” Allow private companies to make any decision they want, regardless of the harm it causes? That has been the case in our recent history, and now, we are starting to see the repercussions. The American dream is no longer about owning a home and raising 2.5 kids. It’s about getting out of debt before retirement and hoping you’ll be okay. Let’s hope that this doesn’t remain the case. Let’s hope that in 20 years, the country will have swung back to the middle again, protecting the middle class, making it possible for families to have a parent home with the kids. Making it possible to thrive in this country we live, in this America, this place which has the power to fulfill or deny our American Dream.