Is the American dream in tatters?
Depends on what you think the American dream is.
If you’ve been following NPR’s recent series on the topic, one point gets underscored again and again.
The phrase “American dream” is an empty vessel into which different people pour very different wines.
A survey cited by NPR shows Americans to be divided into roughly equal thirds on the question: Will you achieve the American dream? A third say they have, a third say they will, a third say they won’t.
One voice in the NPR series says the middle-class version of the dream has six components: homeownership, a nice car, retirement security, health care and vacation time.
So, yes, every one of those pillars has gotten shakier during the Great Recession. Anxiety about that version of the dream is understandable, as is the now common observation that the rising generation of students is the first in a very long time that will not be better off than its parents.
But let me question that last assertion. What is better off, really? Could it be that my generation has encrusted the real American dream, a thing about aspirations of the spirit, beneath a bunch of materialistic, narcissistic yearnings? Have we buried its spiritual core?
Is the American dream really about buying a house so huge you an never furnish all its rooms, so far away from the city that you miss dinner with the kids most nights because you’re stuck in traffic?
Is it really about navel-gazing self-actualization, about freedom from any responsibility to worry about the welfare of those less fortunate than you?
Maybe the Great Recession will lead the rising generation to reclaim a more admirable sense of the American dream.
Knowing that bubble wealth is a snare, a false path, they will perhaps dream less about crazy riches than about finding work that is meaningful to them and of service to others.
Maybe they’ll dream of living in a community that they’ll care about enough to work with their neighbors to make it better, not about retreating from the rest of the world behind gates and security cameras.
Maybe instead of just fretting obsessively about their DNA getting into Harvard, they’ll worry about every mother’s child having a chance to go to a school that knows how to light a spark, and to teach kids how to turn it into a flame.
Maybe they’ll dream of embracing the variety of the American people, rather than fearing, demonizing and dividing the nation into an Us that deserves the dream, and a Them that doesn’t.
Maybe they will rebuild a version of the American dream that Ralph Emerson and Abe Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. could embrace.
I think they can. I look forward to it.