I don’t know about you, but it seems to me like this country has been stuck in a serious mood-funk over the economy for close to three years. Now, a lot of experts are predicting 2011 won’t be any better than 2010. Probably the same experts who told us the recession ended some time mid-2009, but that’s another story.
Accompanying the gloomy predictions has been a lot of talk about the American Dream—and the prospect that next generation will be the first in our nation’s history to have a lower standard of living than the one before it. Don’t think for a minute I don’t appreciate the fact that a lot of people in this country are suffering—particularly given the unexpectedly high unemployment figures released by the government during the first week in December. Granted, I’m not generating the same income I was before the crash myself. But I have a job, and I thank God I do.
At the same time, I’m having a tough time agreeing with pundits who keep saying we’re in the middle of the worst economic times since the Great Depression—when, for instance, we have 80% cable TV penetration in this country.
So what’s happened to the American Dream? I was first asked that question by a Birmingham News reporter during the recession of 1990 to 1991—as part of a story he was writing on what he believed was its impending death.
Bear in mind, in terms of lost prosperity, that recession couldn’t hold a candle to this one—so here’s what I told him: “You wanna know what’s happened to the American Dream? Nothing. The problem is Americans. Particularly Baby Boomers, like me, who’ve had everything silver-spoon-fed to us all our lives—and now, all of a sudden, we’re actually having to work for a living.”
Needless to say, those comments ended-up on the proverbial cutting room floor.
If you asked me, it can all be traced back to Thirtysomething—a TV drama which debuted in 1987, and every week featured impeccably stylish young adults bleating endlessly over the unendurable misery of living in abject affluence.
Honestly, I believe the typical American would rather be rich and miserable than poor and happy. I once said that at a party, and a woman about my age said, “Well sure I would. If I was rich, I could make myself happy.”
“Nope,” I replied. “That’s not the deal: You can either be rich and miserable, or poor and happy. Period. So which is it?” She thought about it for several seconds. “I’d rather be rich.”
That’s what’s wrong with the American Dream. It used to be about the idea that anyone in America with enough ambition, a solid work ethic and (yes) a little luck could rise above their circumstances to become pretty much whatever they wanted in life. Now it’s pretty much about stuff, and how much of it we can accumulate.
To me, there is no more perfect symbol of the American Dream (for good and bad) than the Golden Era of Hollywood. Virtually every major studio of the time was established and run by an Eastern European Jewish immigrant. All of whom were born within a 500-mile radius of each other in Yiddish-speaking Russia, and what is now Poland.
Samuel Goldwyn, who produced some of the era’s greatest films (including 1946’s Oscar-winning The Best Years Of Our Lives) left his family in Warsaw, on foot and penniless, at the age of 15. Five years later, he crossed the Canadian border, still penniless, and walked to New York City—where he ultimately broke into the movie business. By the early 1930’s, Goldwyn was not only living the American Dream, he was producing films which, in a very real way, defined the American Dream for the rest of us.
Materially and professionally, he got everything he could have ever wanted in life. And yet, the main thing I took from his biography was that he wasn’t a very happy person. I think it’s largely because he actually got everything he wanted in life—and what he wanted, mostly, was stuff. And you know what? No matter how good it is, stuff just can’t make us happy. At least, not for very long.
Think about this: Have you ever known a truly happy spoiled child?
Which is why I think so many people are unhappy these days: We’ve accumulated more stuff than any generation in human history, and now we’re all bummed-out by the fact that we might just start having to live with less of it.
I could go on all day about this. But the truth is, writing this column takes me away from my paying job—and I’ve got some pretty big bills to pay. Including one for an incredible full-suspension mountain bike, with 29” alloy wheels and hydraulic disc brakes, that I just couldn’t live without.
This column was originally published in the February, 2011
issue of B-Metro Magazine.