Now all we hear is that the American Dream is dead. As I write this, I’m looking at an article in the L.A. Times (probably the 500th I’ve read) titled “Poof Goes the Middle Class.”
Allow me to take the opposite side. I agree that manufacturing has left the building. Detroit is underwater. We’re never gonna see factories and shipyards like we used to. But that was inevitable, wasn’t it? The foundation of middle-class life from the 50s through the 70s, as defined by mainstream mags like LIFE and LOOK and Newsweek (all defunct as well), was the union contract. Blue-collar jobs paid wages that let families send their kids to college. You could work the assembly line and get health care and retirement. America was flush, but it was a prosperity that couldn’t last.
By ’83, Bruce Springsteen was writing
They’re closing down the textile mill
Across the railroad tracks.
Foreman says these jobs are going, boys,
And they ain’t coming back.
In China now, and Africa and Brazil and Bangladesh, people who had been rural are pulling themselves up to factory life. They can make stuff as good as we did, maybe better. Where’s America? What happened to us?
Maybe I’m delusional, but I think a sea-change is taking place right here, right now. I mean a good change. It’s below the radar. The government has nothing to do with it. The government doesn’t even know it’s going on.
What is this change? It’s happening on ten thousand blogs like this one and at a hundred thousand informal academies and webinars and one-on-one teaching exchanges or one-to-a-hundred mentoring events. Individuals on their own, driven by necessity and by their own dissatisfaction with their lives and their futures, are teaching themselves a new way of working in the world.
The change is reflected, even championed, by words like Seth Godin’s, “Don’t wait to be picked, pick yourself.”
People are becoming entrepreneurs. The mind-set of the employee is vanishing like the factory where it was born. It has to. We’ll all die if we wait for some force outside ourselves—business or government—to bring us jobs or teach us who we are or how we ought to live.
We have to invent our own ways, and that’s just what we’re doing.
I read blogs myself. I take courses. I go to seminars. I search out individuals to teach me stuff, and I find partners whom I can help and who can help me.
In ’83, around the time that Bruce Springsteen was writing Born in the U.S.A., a company I worked for was going belly-up, which was about the tenth time that had happened to me. I remember in the aftermath paying a bookkeeper fifty bucks to teach me how to set up my accounting books and explain to me what a DBA was (“Doing Business As.”) I was scared shitless, making the sea-change from employee to entrepreneur.
The next step was artist. I already was an artist in truth. I had just never figured out the make-it-pay part.
The step after that is Professional. No one teaches you this either. That’s why there are blogs like this one, and seminars and classes and coaches. I read this change between the lines of almost every Comment that appears at the bottom of this page. Take a look. Almost every person who writes in is an artist or entrepreneur or both—on their own, taking charge of their own fears and self-doubts, practicing and learning as they go.
I don’t think this is happening in China, at least not yet.
It hasn’t really happened here either. Nothing earth-shaking has popped up so far. But the change is percolating. It’s underground. It’s silent. There’s no movement, no spokesman. It doesn’t get a lot of press. Most of it is part-time. It’s being done by individuals who haven’t quit their day jobs. But there are millions of people in this country who, one by one, are making themselves over. I don’t mean just “learning skills” or “reinventing livelihoods.” I mean Major Overhaul. Emotions. Dreams. Focus. Professionalism. Mental toughness.
Thucydides quotes this great sentence from Pericles’ Funeral Oration, addressing the citizens of ancient Athens:
Taking everything together then, I declare that our city is an education to Greece, and I declare that in my opinion every one of our citizens, in all the manifold aspects of life, is able to show himself the rightful lord and owner of his own person, and do this, moreover, with exceptional grace and exceptional versatility.
I’ve always had a beef with the American Dream when it’s defined in purely material terms. That definition comes perilously close to, “I’m getting mine and the hell with you.”
But when that dream is defined as Pericles did—” … to show himself [let’s add ‘herself’] the rightful lord and owner of his own person … “—I like it a lot better, and I suspect the Founding Fathers would too.
That dream isn’t dead and it isn’t failing. In fact I think we’re closer to it now, as a nation and as individuals, than we’ve ever been.