With the economic decline America has undergone in recent years, many media outlets and citizens have been asking a common question: What happened to the grand old “American Dream?” What happened to the romantic visions held by our great-grandparents? What happened to the Gatsby-esque vision of the self-made man?
While the financial downturn and high unemployment rate have caused many to seek answers, I have been left wondering what makes them believe that the American Dream has since gone away.
Many on the political right say it has disappeared due to the lack of traditional values in modern society; many on the left say it no longer applies due to increasing inequality. Those in the news media, from the lowly Yahoo! Voices (http://voices.yahoo.com/the-american-dream-gone-wrong-282524.html) to the heavy-hitting Washington Post, (http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/robert-samuelson-the-american-dreams-empty-promise/2012/09/23/e630946c-0428-11e2-8102-ebee9c66e190_story.html) have described the American Dream as “harmful to all of us” and “a slogan that shouldn’t survive” and portray it as an antiquated symbol of greed.
The American Dream is not some sick, depraved force pushing everyone to buy the best car, television or phone available in order to be somehow “better” than his or her neighbors. It’s not a set goal people aspire to; it’s not a job, a wife, kids and a house with a white picket fence. The American Dream is an opportunity. It’s the idea that barriers can be overcome. It’s the idea that an individual’s choices are not limited by the circumstances of his or her birth. It’s the idea that, in America, you can be and do nearly anything you want if you work hard enough.
Now, before you turn to the person sitting next to you and tell them that I’m wrong because some people are obviously born with fewer resources than others, and are thus limited in their opportunities, hear me out. The American Dream isn’t a decree that states everything is equally difficult for everyone; it also doesn’t always guarantee that the person who works harder will doubtlessly come out ahead. The American Dream is not about comparing yourself to others, but rather to yourself only. For example, a person may not be a naturally gifted runner, but that doesn’t mean they can’t improve with work and dedication. Now, if that runner were to solely base their progress on a comparison to Usain Bolt, their life would likely be full of disappointment, as it is extremely unlikely that they would ever be nearly as fast as Bolt, no matter how hard they tried. Does this mean that people should give up on their dreams because of the extreme unlikelihood that they’ll ever be number one? Of course not. The American Dream promises a better life for those who work for it; no comparison to others is necessary. Indeed, it is quite possible that, in their quest for self-betterment, an individual may inadvertently end up becoming the best at their given path of choice.
It also must be noted that the American Dream is not at all dependent on the continuance of “traditional” values. An individual’s personal beliefs are completely irrelevant so long as he or she can accept the existence of other points of view; everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not to impose it on others.
It is easily possible to observe the continued success of the American Dream if one merely looks. Let us examine the life of James Sinegal, founder of the international retail chain Costco. Sinegal was born into a working-class family and spent most of the first 11 years of his life in an orphanage, as his mother was unable to financially support him. At the age of 11, his mother re-adopted him after newly marrying an Italian immigrant, Giuseppe Siniscalli (later Americanized to “Sinegal”). He attended San Diego City College and, later, San Diego State University. Starting as a bagger at a retailer called FedMart, he worked his way up the employment ladder, and eventually co-founded Costco. From 1983 until 2012 he was president and CEO of Costco; from 1985 to 2012, Costco’s stock value increased by 5,000 percent. Costco’s employees are some of the best-paid in retail and the company has one of the lowest employee turnover rates in retail because of this. If Sinegal’s life isn’t a shining example of the persistence of the American Dream, I don’t know what is. (http://www.jewage.org/wiki/en/Article:James_Sinegal_-_Biography)
The American Dream embodies hope, ambition and perseverance – qualities without which America would never have succeeded as a nation. Its omnipresence is limited by no physical boundary, no cultural trend and no government policy. It is human nature to hope, to dream and to persevere and, as such, the American Dream will always stand firm.
Stefan Herlitz is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.