Has the American Dream Become Our Nightmare?

The time is ripe for us to rethink some of our deepest beliefs about the way this country should work, and how we should live our lives.

Mary Sykes Wylie

For much of our history, we haven’t felt any need to negotiate our national faith in unlimited upward mobility. To the great American middle class, the path forward and upward to economic comfort and security was clear, dependable, beautifully simple: you went to work every day, earned a little more money every year, saved what you could, and didn’t radically overspend. In return, you were rewarded with your fair share of the most bountiful and productive society ever to exist on earth. You knew the value of money, you appreciated the value of money, and money thanked you, in its way, by allowing you to graze pretty freely throughout that fruited plain spanning the land from sea to shining sea.

True, there were always people having financial difficulties, but they were individual deviations from the norm, and most felt they could count on making more money than their parents. The default position in America was an implicit promise of perpetual abundance, as if an unwritten amendment to the Constitution guaranteed the right to several chickens in every pot and an SUV in every garage.

Within the last two or three decades, however, these relatively modest dreams of individual upward mobility exploded into grandiose and surprisingly widespread fantasies of striking it filthy rich in as short a time as possible. Getting money, always a significant leitmotif in American society, now became a major bass chord. As a people, we all seemed to go a little bats, thinking of ourselves, on the basis of no evidence whatsoever, as canny financiers or budding real estate moguls. In a way, this collective money mania harkened back to a fond, old American myth of rugged individualism, capitalist style: the plucky, clever entrepreneur pulls himself up by his own bootstraps, valiantly defeats all competitors, and ascends, unaided and alone, to the heights of wealth and prestige. “My money, myself” could almost be the unofficial motto of this generic American go-getter, particularly this generation’s Wall Street buckaroos.

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