When I hear talk about the "American Dream," I conjure up images of opportunity, capitalism and quests for greatness. Though looking at American culture today, all of these words seem to have become remnants of the past.
People are more worried today about making their next mortgage payment than about whether or not they could somehow rise above their circumstances and achieve something great.
In its broadest interpretation, the American Dream stands for people having (more or less) an equal opportunity to fulfill their life's ambition through hard work and determination. It is meritocratic by definition (i.e., by accepting that some will succeed, we are also accepting that others will fail) and that is what makes it beautiful.
From an early age, most Americans are institutionalized. They are enrolled in a handful of institutions that they are bound for the rest of their lives -- these include schools, health care providers, banks, etc...
People are told to get an education, a credit card and eventually find a job somewhere. Failure to do so could disenfranchise people and make them "outliers." Even though neither of these things are bad, when put together, they have an immense power to crush any dream -- American or not.
The reality is that the very same institutions that were once venerated by Americans (and frankly, the entire world) are no longer the best. The U.S. ranks 13th in education, 38th in health care and its banking sector is almost entirely self-serving.
Above that, around 66 percent of higher-ed graduates leave school with some kind of student loan (the total sum of which is more than $1 trillion). Most end up getting a job and eventually pay their student loans only to be confronted by a high likelihood to take on more loans for a car, a house, and so on.
With that, the answer to "What happened to the American Dream?" becomes a little clearer. Most Americans spend a good chunk of their lives busy paying dues (in both dollars and years) to institutions that were supposed to make their lives better, and often do not realize how they inadvertently have not.
Peter Thiel puts it nicely:
"How many people do you know who said when they were young that they planned to work for a couple of years, put some money in the bank, so that they could later pursue their passion and start a new business or strike out on their own?
It almost never plays out that way in practice. What seems to happen is that after some period of time, people are making good money and they're typically spending all of it and it becomes really hard to dial that back. If you bought a house or have all sorts of obligations of one sort or another it may be very difficult."
That, in a nutshell, is why the American Dream is quickly dying. For a country that was once a beacon of innovation, risk-taking, and scientific advancement, that surely is a shame.
Lewis Pugh, a long-distance swimmer, talks about undergoing a "radical tactical shift" in his practice that allowed him to accomplish the impossible. What the United States needs is a similar "radical tactical shift" in many of the fields that once made it great. Most urgently: high-technology, education, and consumer borrowing habits.
I invite you to look at where you are today and think about where you could have been, had you not been locked down by certain obligations that you committed yourself to a long time ago. Once you have done that, you will better be able to plan where you are going and the kind of impact you want to have on the world.
Additional thoughts, suggestions and solutions are welcome.