The American Dream is… Jobs?


For the past 4 presidential election cycles, since 2004, “the economy” and “jobs” have been the top issue for voters. The financial crisis beginning in 2007 only compounded public anxiety about employment opportunities and the ability to provide for one’s family. After all, the American Dream is premised on the idea that the possibility of bettering one’s station in life through hard work is available to everyone.

But not just any hard work — hard work that provides value to, and is needed by, society. In effect, the American Dream is predicated on the condition that there will always be jobs available for Americans to do, jobs that provide upward economic mobility. As those conditions become increasingly tenuous, and in many cases unrealized, it seems that people’s very idea of the American Dream is itself changing.

2015 Pew Research poll found that increasingly Americans prefer financial security over moving up the income ladder. In fact, the rags-to-riches conception of American opportunity (relative upward mobility) may have always been a national myth, but there has certainly been an abundance of absolute upward mobility throughout American history, where individuals do better than their parents on absolute terms thanks to a growing economy and rising educational levels. However, evidence now suggests that absolute upward mobility has stalled since the 1970s, and nearly half of Americans think that the next generation will be worse off than the current generation. It is perhaps no surprise then, that nearly half of millennials (aged 18–29) believe that the American Dream is dead.

The death of the American Dream is symbolic, but it speaks to the psychological state of the country right now, a country that has lost faith in its national ethos. The collapse of faith in economic opportunity drags with it all of the other ideals of the American Dream, that of democracy, of equal rights, and freedom, casting all of them into doubt. Ambiguous as they are, these ideals form the bedrock of America as a collective project. Without faith in that foundation, the nation risks the loss of hope and national pride needed to create a better future.

This national despondency is very similar to the psychological effect of joblessness on individuals and communities. Rust Belt communities offer a glimpse into the impact of unemployment on its people, conditions that many warn will only continue to spread in a world increasingly without work. It is not just economic stagnation that occurs, but also psychological and cultural breakdown. As many have pointed out, this is due to the omni-value of jobs, and the conflation of roles that jobs occupy in our society: the means by which the economy produces goods, the means by which people earn income, and the activity that lends purpose to people’s lives. Without jobs, not only do individuals suffer economically, they also often lose the sense of meaning in their lives.

This is a rough, but I think appropriate analogy to the country as a whole. A loss of faith in economic stability (never mind opportunity) creates disillusionment with the collective national project. The project seems to have lost its meaning since it cannot be counted on for producing its most important output: jobs. Our country, too, has conflated the economy with its national sense of purpose, ideals of social progress, democratic institutions, and justice. Instead of a building toward the future, we risk yearning for the past, an attitude that is destructive and regressive, itself antithetical to the hope of American democracy.

The solution may not be to do whatever it takes to get the job machine going again. We have to face the possibility that we may live in the world where there are not enough jobs to go around. If that does indeed come to pass, we cannot simply abandon our other ideals, or our collective national project. Those are the very ideals that we will need to lean on to choose a new kind of society and culture. Social upheavals can lead to a better future, but we still are responsible for determining what that future is. It could be that the contingent connection between personal purpose and contractual employment was never our destiny. The opportunity to shed that yoke in favor of something new can be cause for celebration, and could itself constitute a goal worthy of our collective purpose. And only with a renewed sense of purpose can we achieve it.