The new American Dream

In the August 6 cover story of New York magazine, Frank Rich reflects on the impact and aftermath of a year most of us are all too familiar with: 2008.

It’s when, Rich suggests, “America stopped believing in the American Dream”:

“Unlike 9/11, which prompted an orgy of recriminations and investigations, the Great Recession never yielded a reckoning that might have helped restore that faith. The Wall Street bandits escaped punishment, as did most of the banking houses where they thrived. Everyone else was stuck with the bill.
Millennials, crippled by debt and bereft of Horatio Alger paths out of it, mock the traditional American tenet that each generation will be better off than the one before. At the other end of the actuarial spectrum, boomers have little confidence that they can scrape together the wherewithal needed to negotiate old age. The American workers in the middle have seen their wages remain stagnant as necessities like health care become unaffordable.”

For most people who look and live like me, this version of the American Dream was never all that attainable, something Rich acknowledges and supports with context from historian Elaine Tyler May: “Even at this boom’s height, this egalitarianism was a myth as far as black Americans were concerned, but the white majority bought it: This bedrock belief in economic fairness ‘motivated white working-class and middle-class Americans to play by the rules.’ The assumption was that the ownership class would play by them too.”

And a decade later, we’re still paying the price:

“The mood in America is arguably as dark as it has ever been in the modern era. The birthrate is at a record low, and the suicide rate is at a 30-year high; mass shootings and opioid overdoses are ubiquitous. In the aftermath of 9/11, the initial shock and horror soon gave way to a semblance of national unity in support of a president whose electoral legitimacy had been bitterly contested only a year earlier. Today’s America is instead marked by fear and despair more akin to what followed the crash of 1929, when unprecedented millions of Americans lost their jobs and homes after the implosion of businesses ranging in scale from big banks to family farms."

“Everything in the country is broken,” Rich declares. “Not just Washington, which failed to prevent the financial catastrophe and has done little to protect us from the next, but also race relations, health care, education, institutional religion, law enforcement, the physical infrastructure, the news media, the bedrock virtues of civility and community.”

And while blaming this state of affairs solely on Trumpism is shortsighted, I agree with Rich’s assertion that “[Trump] saw a market in merchandising pessimism as patriotism and cornered it.”

But I’ll add this to Rich’s observations: Our culture has also done a poor job of empowering us to embrace worthwhile alternatives to the notion of a singular American Dream. While the new economy’s technological impact continues to redefine how we work and live, it’s also brought with it seemingly boundless opportunities to create new markers of prosperity besides job security and home ownership — including the personal freedom to earn a living with work that we’ve stamped with our own meaning.

Because the new American Dream is one where creators like you and me practice creativity to produce extraordinary work that we can then exchange for Human Currency — a term I’ve coined to describe the economic, social and cultural equity available to an individual to design, negotiate access to and sustain a meaningful life.

Access to this personal freedom requires creativity, focus and peak productivity though — skills that aren’t treated as valuable as they actually are. Instead, we circle the wagons on social media bogging our minds down with currency-zapping drivel that widens the resources gap between the companies who profit off of our attention and a generation of users who so willingly forfeit said attention.

It’s true: We’re the most educated generation ever, but we’re also the most distracted and disenchanted. Most of us came of age during The Great Recession, which meant at the same time we saw our job prospects vanish we turned to social media in an attempt to connect and cope with other people who shared our grim experiences.

But our longing for global camaraderie and optimism was soon exploited by for-profit ad agencies — masked as social media brands — and exacerbated by smartphone apps that function as 24/7 slot machines and offer you what technologist Jaron Lanier says are “shiny treats in exchange for minutes of your attention and bites of your personal data, which can then be packaged up and sold.

And it’s only getting worse for Generations Z and Alpha.

There’s more than one way to thrive in this new economy to enable the personal freedom that isn't as elusive as it may seem. But most of them require either access to mountains of money or fluency with technologies like artificial intelligence — both of which I don’t have.

But what I do have is the ability to create. And that’s an advantage humans will always have over technology. So that’s what I’m using.