Is the American Dream Dead?
Every successful executive and business leader I’ve known had one thing in common: the motivation to do his best and achieve the American Dream. Granted, that is sort of vague, but that’s as it should be. Our capabilities are unique and our dreams are personal, so it’s no surprise that our results manifest in different ways.
Regardless of how we envisioned our future, we all knew it wouldn’t come easy. And we all knew that, if we failed to set aggressive goals or our work fell short of accomplishing them, the outcome would reflect that. In other words, we knew that it was entirely up to us to take on big responsibility and deliver.
Looking back, I doubt if a single one of us would change the path we took. But what if things had been different?
- What if our parents and teachers hadn’t instilled in us a powerful work ethic and sense of personal responsibility?
- What if flawed fiscal, regulatory, and tax policies hurt the middle class by constraining economic growth while inflating equity markets?
- What if popular dogma insisted that, since the deck is stacked against us, then shooting for the stars is futile?
- And since the American Dream is off the table, what if technology provided an easier way to get by?
If all those "what ifs" had come to pass, would some of us have taken the easier path and, if so, how would that have changed the outcome? That may sound like a hypothetical question, but it’s not. All those factors exist today – every single one – and they’re affecting our culture as a whole and each of us individually in profound ways.
Human behavior is usually described by a bell curve. While there have always been overachievers at one end of the curve, slackers at the other end, and everything in between, there’s little doubt that the aggregate behavior of the American workforce is shifting toward the slacker or low productivity end of the curve.
All those “what ifs” that have come to pass have brought us record low workforce participation rates, a chronically sluggish economy, and a shift from higher-paying full-time jobs to lower-paying part-time work.
Those cultural, political, and technological factors are dramatically affecting the dynamics of the American economy. The scary thing is, had I had entered the workforce today instead of when I did, there’s a very good chance that I too would have been influenced by those same factors, chosen a path of least resistance, and achieved far less in my career.
Consider this: I graduated from college with a useless degree in physics and mediocre grades. I couldn’t find a decent job and had few options, so I boomeranged back home and worked part-time. But here’s the thing. I’d been brought up with a strong work ethic and the drive to make something of myself, so I was desperate and miserable.
Knowing in my heart that I had to find a new path if I ever hoped to get anywhere in life and make my parents proud of me – not to mention be proud of myself – I searched until I found that path. I went back to school, got an M.S. in electrical engineering, got into the high-tech industry, climbed the corporate ladder, and the rest is history.
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Had that happened today, I would have had more options. I could have become a solopreneur and made ends meet by weaving together some part-time gigs – doing social-media marketing, developing online content, or driving my dad’s car for Uber as part of the sharing economy.
I can actually see myself doing that. Maybe I eventually would have gotten my own place and, without that sense of desperation and misery, settled into a life of mediocrity and apathy. All that I’ve achieved in a remarkably fulfilling career would never have come to pass. And I’d probably be bitter and jealous about it, to this day.
Although they approach the topic from somewhat different perspectives, presidential candidates from both sides of the isle – Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton and GOP hopeful Jeb Bush, among others – have talked about the opportunities and challenges technology brings to our economy.
On the one hand, innovative new companies are disrupting the competitive landscape in many age-old industries like retail, transportation, hospitality, food, and real estate. And while some of the Silicon Valley elite are quick to call this a win for workers seeking more flexible hours and balanced lives, that’s not the whole picture. Not even close.
On the flipside, the digital revolution, combined with the sociopolitical changes described above, have profoundly affected our workforce and our economy … and not in a good way. And while each of us is influenced by those factors, only we can change them. After all, it’s a free society. Each of us has a vote, a say, and choices to make.
As former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher so aptly put it, “There is no such thing as society: there are individual men and women, and there are families.” The good news is my life did turn out the way it did. And I will go to my grave fighting for the American Dream.
Steve Tobak is a management consultant, columnist, former senior executive, and author of Real Leaders Don’t Follow: Being Extraordinary in the Age of the Entrepreneur (Entrepreneur Press, October 2015). Tobak runs Silicon Valley-based Invisor Consulting and blogs at stevetobak.com, where you can contact him and learn more.