June 8, 2014

The American Dream: Time for a Redefinition?

A CNN poll just released contains some sobering numbers. 59% of the adults surveyed don't believe it is possible to achieve the "American Dream" anymore, while 63% feel their children will grow up to be worse off. Though not spelled out in the survey, the phrase, American Dream, is generally interpreted as meaning hard work and perseverance will pay off in a better life.

With the increased concentration of wealth among the top tier of Americans, and the relative decline in middle and lower class wages, financial stability, and upward mobility,  it is not difficult to understand these poll results. 

The question is what do we do about it- accept and adjust or strive to change the perceptions and underlying reality? What can we do about it? Do you believe the poll is reflecting the real state of mind of the majority of Americans?

As a person living a satisfying retirement sometimes I feel I no longer have "skin in the game." I am not in the same place, mentally, and economically, as those who responded to this poll. I no longer care about moving up the ladder, increasing my financial clout, buying and spending more, or working hard to achieve that elusive dream.

During the time I built a career and solidified my financial future as best I could, I was part of an America that rewarded hard work. This survey and basic awareness of how things are today, point to a society that is different.

I hasten to add that what I just said doesn't mean I don't care, in fact just the opposite. Being not directly involved in the day to day struggles gives me more time to think about where we are heading. It gives me the chance to see more clearly the growing inequity that is creating a yawning gap between those at the top of the ladder and those on the rungs below them (and those who can't even get on the ladder).

If the majority of our fellow citizens believe the American Dream is dead or no longer attainable what does that mean for all of us? How will that perception change our daily life and our future? If that hope is no longer alive, what is taking its place?

Retirement is a time of life when many become more involved with their community, with volunteerism, with family, or with seeing a wrong and trying to do something about it. What we may be facing is the rules of the game are changing. The basic glue that holds us together may be losing its grip.

I wish I knew what to do about it. I wish there was an answer that made sense. I can promise you that during our upcoming RV trip around the country I will be listening carefully to what people are saying and how they are living. I will be thinking about what a single, retired person can do, or should do.

So, I'll have to get back to you on this.



56 comments:

  1. Bob,
    I wish I could offer some optimism here, but in the short term I don't see any. Our major institutions; congress, the executive branch, the courts and the media have been "captured" and now are agents of the forces that seek to maintain and expand the status quo.

    Superficially, the USA is a group of "individuals" seeking to maintain their individuality and "freedom." The sense of community that I enjoyed growing up has seemingly vanished where I live. Witness the decline of community service organizations (as outlined in Robert Putnam's book, "Bowling Alone") They just cancelled our city-wide celebration of community spirit and pride that we have held each year for several decades. In our state legislature, any effort to help the poor will surely be branded as "socialism" in letters to the local newspaper.... which few even read anymore. People would rather watch American Idol or Dancing With the Stars than attend a local school board meeting. Technology, which should increase our sense of community can sometimes discourage it. Some people are active in all kinds of online forums, but don't know their neighbors. It can be discouraging.

    I believe that the community sprit is still there, strong as ever, but hidden. You see it every time there is a natural disaster. Everyone seems to come forward to help. I vividly remember seeing pictures of the aftermath of a terrible earthquake in California-- and homeless people, along side men in business attire working hard to free those trapped in the rubble. It is there, but it takes a crisis to get everyone's attention. Americans can seemingly solve most problems when we all are pulling in the same direction. That is why I am sad to say that I don't think anything will be done about the loss of the American Dream until the crisis is upon us, and those left behind start to pick up bricks (not enough torches and pitchforks anymore). I pray that I am wrong, but I am afraid that is what may happen. And when it does, our leaders will follow and do the right thing...eventually.. and we will come through to a new day.

    What can retirees do? For myself (because I have more time than most) I find myself in agreement with you. I try to foster and encourage a sense of community whenever and wherever I can. Volunteer, support community efforts financially if possible, meet and get to know your neighbors, write your legislators and congressional representatives.... who may not listen just yet, but they soon will--forced to do so all too soon I am afraid.

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    1. Rick, I appreciate your thoughtful and concise summary. You have avoided emotion, labeling, and name-calling, which is part of our larger problem as a society, and simply stated what you perceive.

      I completely agree that our best traits come to the fore when a disaster allows us to help each other directly. Isn't it sad, though, that's what it takes for us to understand our shared lives and destiny.

      Personally, I don't think we will see violence over this issue. But, those who are being passed over will simply withdraw from participation in society. The effect on the economy and daily life will force changes, at least I hope that is the way all this plays out.

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    2. Instead of violence occurring over this issue, perhaps more cities and states will seek their own solutions; like Seattle, WA., where an unprecedented “living wage” experiment is about to occur. Over the next 3 to 7 years, depending on business type, the minimum wage will slowly be raised to $15. No other place in the country has committed to this type of increase in an effort to reduce income inequality. (Although Washington state already has the highest minimum state wage in the nation at $9.32.)

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    3. You have raised an interesting point: instead of waiting for the Federal government to tackle an issue maybe the states (like Washington), cities (like Seattle) and local entities will face these problems and come up with a solution that works for them.

      The obvious problem with a national solution is that one size does not fit all. What works in Seattle may not work in Mobile, what makes sense in Maine probably won't work in Arizona.

      Thanks for making an important point.

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  2. A thought provoking post. Here is my two cents worth - and worth everything it cost :-)

    First, I'm not too sure about the poll. After all, bad news sells better than good news, and poll results are often skewed by the way the questions are asked. But perhaps I'm just being cynical.

    Assuming the numbers are correct, however, I'm not sure that perception matches reality. After all, many non-Americans still want to move here from other countries. So maybe the complainers don't fully appreciate how good we have it.

    Case in point. My web site designer is from Nepal. He came from a poor family where half his siblings did not live to adulthood. Now a US citizen, he "won" the visa lottery as a young man and came to the US. Worked his way through college, and started a business a few years back. He now has a wife and child, and is ecstatic about life in the US.

    So is the American Dream dead? Not when I talk to him. In fact, he (and others like him) only reassure me. In my own case, I've done pretty well for a kid from Nebraska who lost his Dad at a young age. Ditto my brother and several friends. We all worked hard, and ultimately reaped the rewards of the American Dream.

    As for me, I'm still optimistic -- but disappointed in those who gripe and grumble. This is still the land of opportunities, but one has to go after them. Just as you and I did.

    Finally, living within one's means is key. I suspect many who are unhappy have not done so.

    PS - Enjoy the RV trip. We just finished a 2700 mile trip from AZ to UT, Yellowstone, and the Black Hills. Great time, and very "satisfying"!

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    1. For the tens of millions who are the "working poor" because they cannot support themselves, much less a family, on the minimum wage, I think they would disagree. Certainly, there are all sorts of examples like your web designer, but for those who find their jobs and training made obsolete by the changes in society, they have no real hope of joining the party.

      Someone will say they could get retraining and a better education. OK, so who will pay to keep them alive and their kids from starving while they do so? And, is it realistic for a 40 or 50 year old man or woman to launch a new tech or medical career?

      It is certainly possible that the poll has some bias. I spent 20 years designing research studies so I know how the questions are worded and the way the sample is selected has a direct impact on the result. But, with all the other studies and empirical evidence that the gap between the well off and the poor is increasing and we are dividing into a society with distinct classes, I am pretty sure the study reflects a serious problem.

      With all that said, America is still very much a country where someone can take a dream and make it happen. The path to success is still very possible. The problem is that not enough feel they have that chance - certainly fewer than when you and I turned our dreams into reality.

      It is a complicated problem - thanks for your thoughts and perspective. This post is meant to stimulate discussion. I certainly don't have the answers but I venture to guess we are all better off by thinking about the issue and opening our minds to what can and cannot be done.

      Speaking of the RV trip, we have never been to the Black Hills or Badlands but both are on our route this summer. It is going to be great.




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    2. Yes, let's always mention the working poor. I was a single mother, living in an apartment, even RENT on a home was out of reach, and I earned a bare salary as a bookkeeper.

      We were NEVER poor. We went to the dollar movies, we had picnics, we went to the beach for the cost of gasoline, we had other kids over to spend the night. If you leave out the alcoholic/absent father in the picture, my kids think they had a great childhood.

      There was no government help in any way.

      Seriously, if your priorities are shelter, food, clothes and medical care and not the latest tech gadgets and designer labels, you can go a really long way on a low salary and imagination.

      Our expectations for basic living are so distorted now that some people don't have a clue how well off they are in this country.

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    3. I understand your point but disagree with your basic premise. On $7.25 an hour, being able to afford rent in even a marginal apartment, buy food that costs more every week, afford medical care even if you don't need any expensive prescription drugs, and have even bus fare for transportation to and from work is just not possible.

      These folks do not have the latest tech gadgets and designer labels. To make that charge is to blame the poor for being poor. That charge is a cliché and untrue for the vast majority of our fellow citizens in this situation.

      I absolutely agree that too many of us think our cable TV and two cars in a garage are "due" to us and a "right" of ours. But, I reject the argument that the working poor in this country are splurging on anything. They are desperately hanging on and slipping farther and farther behind with each increase in food, clothing, and rent costs.

      The broader point of this post is to not just focus on the destitute bottom segment among us, but the widening gap between the middle class and the wealthy and the lack of significant opportunities to move up the ladder. This CNN poll (and many others) point to a growing belief that hard work no longer guarantees a legitimate shot at success.

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    4. Hi Bob,

      Less my earlier "optimistic" reply be misconstrued, I completely agree with your concerns about the "working poor." That was the world in which both my wife and I (and many friends) grew up, and I understand it well.

      What I find interesting is that most of my friends who have been there and achieved some level of success don't complain. Rather, they appreciate the opportunities we've been given. My web designer from Nepal never complains -- he is almost in awe of being here -- and it is always a joy to talk with him.

      My real beef is with those who are successful, but complain anyway. And then based on those complaints, elect and support politicians to cut the benefits to those who need them the most. School funds, medical assistance, food stamps, and more. Where is the gratitude and compassion?

      Another concern is that pessimism often breeds more pessimism, so I try to stay positive. But that does not preclude trying to change things for the better.

      So I commend you for starting this discussion. Looks like you hit a nerve. Please keep us posted on what you learn in your travels.

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    5. Will do, Daryl, and we will share a lunch again in the fall when I return.

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    6. Bob,

      When did minimum wage service jobs such as working in fast food become a career? The first thing a person in a minimum wage job should be doing is to develop the skills and work history to enable them to get a better job. The biggest indictment of the US is that we have gone from a period where these were thought of as part time, initial jobs for high school and college students getting their first work experience to where they are now being treated by some as career family supporting positions. It is the attitude of the individual that enables them to dig themselves out of poverty and to improve themselves, those waiting on someone else to move them up will always be waiting no matter what the minimum wage is.

      I was recently in Australia. A country with a rather high minimum wage. The first thing I noticed was the very high food prices in dining venues, even in fast food chains (50% higher then here). The second thing I noticed was considerably fewer employees in such establishments with a considerably different way of operating. TANSTAAFL

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    7. Developing the skills and work history is a laudable goal not not usually obtainable by those in such positions. Developing other skills means education and training and that means extra time and money, something many of these folks don't have. If you are supporting a family on a minimum wage job you aren't able to improve your situation.

      I don't think these people think of this as a "career," rather a job that is their only alternative to welfare. Attitude is important but can't overcome many of the obstacles that these people face. While I agree with your overall point, it is too easy to suggest pulling one's self up to a better position when education and circumstances make that impossible.

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  3. I think we'll have a major, major change in the next decade or so. I've seen petitions from two widely separate venues about a constitutional amendment to say corporations are not people. If it succeeds, it will be interesting to see how the new amendment is honored.

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    1. You may be right about the timetable for change. We seem to be a people slow to get riled or demand a change, but then a tipping point is reached and movement is rapid (think Vietnam War, for example).

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    2. I was the first person in my family to graduate from college. I went on to a career as an academic in higher education, but I still have close friends from the "old neighborhood" that are working class. Many are struggling, and not happy with their circumstances. All are hard working in attitude and behavior. Some were laid off in the great recession and have not found comparable work. Some have faced age discrimination in seeking employment. Some work two or more jobs. A "satisfying retirement" is not a realistic possibility for a number of my friends as they depleted their retirement funds to survive the downturn. They feel that they played by the rules and then the rules changed. Some are very angry and bitter.

      They deserve our compassion and attention.

      I am less concerned about the supreme court ruling that corporations are people and more concerned that they have also recently ruled that money is free speech. That is one of the reasons I am worried about our short-term future. All have free speech in this country, but money allows for an increase in volume that can drown out other voices and that money has now largely captured our government and media. That is the basis of my fear-- because the poor lack money, the only way they can raise the volume of their speech is..... with bricks. We may soon face some hard choices. I hope all factions can work to find common ground in peace.

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    3. Rick, I hope Elaine reads your first paragraph. The plight of the hard working lower middle class is not their fault, they are not spending their money on an iPad. They were caught in a world shift and paying the price.

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    4. I agree with Linda's comment and also with Bob's further commentary that change sometimes happens quickly. When we think about the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the War on Poverty announced in that same year, we can see that change sometimes happens in a convulsion rather than in a smooth ramping up of consensus. Whether one believes those changes were beneficial or not--I certainly do--many of us saw change happen more quickly than we had thought possible. Also, perhaps the American Dream has become a little tattered and needs to be reconstructed. Many of us who have retrenched more than we had anticipated doing due to an early, involuntary "retirement" during the Great Recession have found it beneficial to rethink our priorities. As a country, we need to work toward everyone having enough financial security that they can do just that: rethink priorities and decide on their own American Dream.

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    5. Rick,

      One of the major reasons there is economic growth after a major recession is because in the past people moved and changed careers. There has been substantially less of that this time. Government programs are now more structured to keep people in place. Often in places where there are not jobs and maybe never will be.

      The economy has experienced permanent changes in a lot of cases the jobs they had will never come back. The individuals need to adjust to the changes by moving to a different location where jobs exist (lots of jobs in the Dakotas for example that pay very well. The issue is not finding a comparable job, it is finding a job, even if it pays less and then building on that.

      Another driver after recessions is that large inefficient businesses fail and this creates space for new, energetic companies to grow and thrive. In this recession you had such businesses propped up and as such prevented the appearance of new businesses. Instead you got new regulations that make it even more difficult for small business to be created and grow.

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  4. I think that the American Dream has become perverted. It used to be the dream to have Enough to be Comfortable, i.e. house, health, education, with some bucks and time for some modest recreation. Now it seems the mentality is that Enough is not nearly Enough. Gotta have a BIG house, gotta have (several) BIG tv's , gotta have a couple of BIG cars (and then trade it in after a couple of years), gotta have Cable TV, gotta have the latest computer/cell phone, gotta have an expensive cruise vacation ..... a whole lotta "gotta haves" that we've been convinced will make us happy once we get them. (Do I sound like Mr. Money Mustache?) :) But people today are inundated with a spend more outlook that puts us in credit card debt, loads us with huge mortgages, etc. so that many who are making a fine living unfortunately feel that they are still struggling to find the American Dream. And which makes the truly working poor feel even more behind the 8-ball from trying to make ends meet while in the midst of all this well-broadcast "gotta have" mentality. The American Dream is still possible, but its original definition needs to be re-awoken.

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    1. I would add that the "gotta have" mindset is also a consequence of a society that has become very secular. Religious teaching, regardless of the foundation, speaks to a simple fact: storing up treasures on earth is pointless and takes one's focus of what is truly important.

      The American Dream DOES need a redefinition in the world today: maybe something like equality of opportunity, support for the less fortunate, educational quality for everyone, not just those who can afford private schools, and an understanding that this country was founded by outcasts and immigrants. That American Dream would reject the idea that bigger is always better, the poor are poor because of their own failings, and that we are in this together.

      With that definition, there would be no stopping us.

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  5. My grandmother put out pies for the homeless families traveling from the farm to California in the 1930's. The Vanderbuilts had so much money they built amazing mansions.
    My parents helped start up St Mary's Food bank and fought for housing for the migrant workers in the 1960's. Hugh Heffner built Playboy clubs and mansions.
    I grew up working Habitat and back packs of food for kids. Gates was making computers.
    The poor and ultra rich have always been with us- with media we now acknowledge it.

    What does US middle class mean? Does it mean you can do whatever you want in retirement? That is pretty new isn't it? Does it mean you can purchase a $250,000 home, two cars and a pool? Look at Lincoln, Truman or even Clinton. They were failures at times, just to pick themselves up and start again. That, to me, is more then the money that the stats show. They are the American dream and so are most of us.

    My family is living the American dream.
    My sil grew up on a rural MO farm and is now in a great job using his skill set. My nephews and nieces who choose to are all well employed. Their American dreams are not to have McMansions- but to have families who love them and enough money to enjoy their own separate dreams. They accept that the equation that the end will be much more like their great grandparents- taking care of their own retirement and parents- instead of some government service caring for them. They eat local, are reverting to tight Christian Churches, grow food, and are not afraid to move if their job goes away.
    Maybe that is a re definition. I think it could, actually, be a good direction.

    It isn't what I had- it is different. The only thing I worry about is that they do not have the same desire to put out that pie....

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    1. You have reiterated an important point of this post: the American Dream definition needs updating. If we move back toward multi-generational families supporting each other, being satisfied with what we can afford and need, not just want, taking care of others, and building a sense of community, won't we be better of?

      The path to success (whatever that means) is still there for individuals with certain skill sets, an idea that benefits others, and the luck to be born in a situation that supplies the money and wherewithal to give it a try.

      Where we need to rethink our definition, is what do we do for those who can't jump on the wagon? How do we take care of others? When does amassing huge wealth that isn't used for the betterment of mankind stop being a goal?

      Like I said, I'll have to get back to you on that!

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  6. I am not seeing a crumbling of the American Dream, rather I am seeing a shift in what it encompasses. There are stats, and then of course there are specifics, and my specifics are watching my adult children creating their version of the American Dream, which while different from ours, is no less valid. As was suggested above by Janette, their version involves less time focused on career building, and more time focused on having a rich, robust non-working life.

    With regard to your earlier post comment on "The gotta have" mentally as being solely secular - I have to tell you that here in OC, home of more than one mega church (Rick Warren's to name just one) , I am continually confronted with the very secular "NOW" bumper sticker, which proclaims the owner to be "Not of This World," plastered onto very, very pricey $50,000-on-up SUV's. Oh, the irony!

    I don't know, call me an optimist, but I still see so much to celebrate in this land, even more so as we travel the globe and gain better perspective. Do we have issues that need resolving? Yes, of course, but when exactly in our 220 year history as a nation did we not? When exactly were things the best they could be? For everyone???

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    1. The "prosperity" message of certain preachers does scream irony since it has nothing to do with the actual intent of the belief system. Of course, it is quite possible to have a big house and big car and still be a true believer in the message of the Bible. What that person does with his or her resources is the true test. Jesus wasn't against money or wealth, He was against that being the person's motivation.

      You are really making my point though the post has been kind of taken down a side road by some of the comment threads. The American Dream continues, just in a redefined state. If the majority of us no longer believe in the traditional American Dream definition, then we need to redefine it.

      I, for one, find that to be a good thing for us, the country, and the planet. Focusing less on acquisition and more on lasting values and connections between us is much healthier and satisfying. I was very much into the bigger houses, better cars, Christmas in Hawaii mindset during the flush years of my career. And, I was stressed, shallow, unhappy, and risking my marriage.

      As you well know, retirement has allowed me to look back on the self-destructive path I was on. If posts like this cause even one person to re-think what they are doing then it is worth it.

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    2. Oh that tiny little post review screen . . . I meant to type "non-secular_ (Paragraph 2) and "220+ year history" (Paragraph 3).

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  7. The only thing that I feel I can do as an individual is to shop locally and/or buy used whenever possible. It seems that most of the concentrated wealth is in the hands of the big corporations as is the disparity between the highest paid and lowest paid employees. These big companies need to stop whining about increasing the minimum wage and pay their employees a living wage by reducing CEO and top management compensation. Unfortunately, the smaller businesses will once again be hurt the most by the new minimum wage. I'm afraid it's too late for the majority of Americans to take back our country via voting as most (if not all) of our representatives are in corporate America's back pocket and overcompensated (and out of touch) as well.

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    1. I find it more than a little upsetting that the CEO who gets paid $50 million says the company can't afford to raise the minimum raise. How dare he.

      Betty and I are planning on eating and shopping at as many local, non-national outlets as we can on our RV trip. The small town businesses need all the support they can muster.

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    2. We also try to shop local and do business locally (banks, etc.), but find that it is sometimes more expensive since the little guy, due to his lower volume, has higher business costs to cover than the big chains and box stores. Never-the-less, when my husband had to purchase a furnace filter the other day, he opted to go to the small local hardware store rather than to Lowe's. If we all do this, we an help our local business people to get and stay successful!

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    3. Yes, it is often more expensive to shop at the local store rather than the big box, but a trade-off worth the cost to keep small businesses viable and employees working.

      We will also over-tip for good, friendly service. While not always the case, we assume the person serving us is working long hours and could use a little extra - money that we won't miss and she/he will really appreciate.

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  8. First off let me state that I believe the poll is an accurate reflection of the views of the majority of Americans today. That does not mean it is correct or warranted, just that many actually believe it. I tend to feel otherwise, and I am not one of those at the top of the rung. We have a defeatist attitude in this country, and without trying to make this a political rant, I believe the current government we have in place makes a living off that attitude (that can be true of Republicans as well as Democrats). It tends to pervade all aspects of thought.

    For example, I have been on retirement blogs about early retirees such as yourself and many others on this blog. If you wait for it you always tend to have some individuals come out with the comment around early retirees that they were able to end work earlier "because they stole from the rest of us". I then comment back to them that Deb and I left college with nothing, worked hard, saved hard, made good life choices, and retired at 55 and 60 respectively. Who exactly did we steal from? I never hear back from them.

    I bring this up because personal responsibility has nothing to do with anyone's position in life anymore. It is all due to the fact that early retirees stole their money, or that underwater mortgage that one never should have taken is due to greedy "banksters", and so on. I long for the day when someone in authority at the Federal level says enough is enough, pull your own pants up and work hard to make something of yourself. And if you choose to not do so, you made your bed and lie in it.

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    1. Personal responsibility has been a theme of many posts on this blog (and others). It is something our 'entitled" society has forgotten. The stolen type comments drives me nuts, too. Who is the "they" we stole from?

      At the same time, personal responsibility extends to those who control the financial and governmental worlds. Many of these folks are quick to claim how hard they work and how their success is from their efforts, but often forget all the tax breaks, subsidies, loans, and toil of employees that helped them succeed.

      All of us would benefit from re-learning the importance of a sense of community and a shared fate. The "they" we point out is often "us."

      Thanks, Chuck. I think you, Deb, Betty and I will have interesting talks if we ever make it to your neck of the woods.

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    2. I agree, Bob. Whether in TN or AZ or elsewhere, we definitely need to break bread someday. Great post, btw. It seems to have hit a nerve with people, both positive and negative.

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  9. I saw the same poll and find this an interesting discussion, with many good points esp. the one about the Am. dream involving not just more things but more quality of life. All I can add is that I volunteer at our local community college, tutoring lots of "economically challenged" people age 18 - 40, many of them immigrants. They are all getting more education and positioning themselves to get better jobs. The American dream is not dead with these people, not at all.

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    1. Chuck makes a valid point in his comment above about pessimism. At the same time, the old dream of constantly earning more so we can buy more needs to go the way of the carrier pigeon. Can't the new American Dream involve the quality of life you refer to, rather than the quantity of our stuff?

      If that is the question then the poll results would probably be quite different. As I noted above, how a question is asked often predetermines the answer. This remains the best place on earth to build a life of quality, if that's what we all choose as our goal.

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  10. This is a fascinating post--and interesting to me because I had such a hard time reading it. Both my love & I have quit watching much of the news because I find myself getting depressed. I don't focus on many areas of current affairs because I don't see it in my area of control & I've spent too many years worrying about things I can't change. At the same time, I volunteer locally, am doing my best to shop/spend to keep my money in this area (including refinancing my mortgage to stay with a local credit union instead of a mult-national bank) and concentrating on what I can do right here, right now.

    As for "stealing" money, I relate. I cannot tell you how many folks thought I was stupid as I worked a government job for $9-11/hour from 1983-1990. ( I got a promotion, so got a raise & eventually more money). Even in those days, that was not much more than minimum wage & I live in a relatively expensive area in California. I wanted to work for the government to help folks & I landed in a place where I could fulfill that dream so I was willing to work for less. Now that I have a government pension, many of those folks who laughed at me, who literally made 4-8 times what I did at the time, are angry at me because I have that pension. Ironically, a few of them have much larger corporate pensions than mine from the county, but that is apparently not the issue; to "them" I have stolen their tax money." I also am not sure how that works; they were fine with my working 29 years for much less. Ah well, human nature.

    I do think on a local level (our town/county isn't that large) we feel more community spirit but I surely see the "Americans pull together after a disaster" attitude. I volunteered for a local FoodBank fundraiser last week & cannot tell you how many folks driving luxury cars who would not contribute the one dollar we asked for ((it was a dollar that day for everyone in our county) while many folks on bikes or in more modest vehicles gave freely.

    As for us waiting for disaster, I remember reading about World War II---where we didn't get involved until AFTER Pearl Harbor & we were attacked. I try to hold onto my optimism that this will work out well for folks individually & our country as a whole. There are amazing individuals out there; it truly is unfortunate that bad news sells faster than highlighting those folks.

    I am still puzzling this out myself....this might be a good post to re-run after a period of time; 'cause I think many of us "might have to get back to you on that!"

    Enjoy your RV trip---I'm SO excited for you!

    pam

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    1. Thank you, Pam, for taking the time to leave such a thoughtful comment that addresses so many of the issues raised. I hope this post has caused some folks to think more deeply about these topics and maybe, just maybe, decide to do what they can to help others and restore our sense that we can make a difference.

      After all the "American Dream" can be whatever we believe it should be. Maybe this time around it can be less about individual success and more about community and society wellness.

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  11. Put me in the optimist camp. There are too many myths out there. The recently released Gallop Standard of Living Index has climbed to its highest point since 2008 (when they started tracking - which was prior to the recession) . 80 percent of people say that are satisfied with their standard of living and 59 percent say that theirs is improving.
    But I was even more interested in the large academic study (Harvard and others) done on economic mobility. This was done on actual tax records. Seems that mobility has stayed about the same for the last 50 years. The movement from one group to the other remains about the same. The groups are very fluid. Seems that fortunes rise and fall regularly. But overall incomes have risen for everyone. Median family income has risen about 12 percent adjusted for inflation since 1980 meaning that most adults today have more disposable income than their parents did at the same age. Not what we have been led to believe. I would like to see the full report. So far I have relied on online news outlets. But the report evidently tracks many factors that contribute to mobility . The factor from the report that is most often mentioned is that children from two parent households have much more chance for upward mobility. Of course, we know that.... but not much can be done about it. Would like to learn more about factors that we can change. While it is good news to learn that we are not going backward, it would be great to move forward. Education is always high on the list for improvement. The workplace is changing, of course. It always has. Many companies say that they would hire but they can't find qualified applicants. Why is that?
    It is also interesting to note that income inequality does not depress mobility. Personally I don't care about the gap between rich and poor. I'd just like to see things improve for the poor. It's not like we are splitting up a finite amount. Class envy is not a solution.
    I believe that in this country the opportunity to make a decent living is there for most people if you make good choices and put in a lot of effort.. That is not always easy and some people could use some help with the choices as well as some help with the rough spots.

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    1. Great comment, Judy. The studies you refer to sound important and certainly would lead one to be more optimistic and present a different perspective.

      I am fascinated by the variety of responses to this post. Frankly, I was concerned I would have a bunch of negative comments that accused me of all sorts of horrible things for even raising the issue. That has not occurred.

      Can you imagine how productive it would be if the type of thoughtful, reasonable discussion we are reading here was more common across all of society?

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    2. Wow Judy, amazing information. Where are you finding this? Thank you for responding to Bob's post.
      I disagree, respectfully, that there isn't much we can do about two parent families. That is a whole other topic. :)
      Thank you Bob for approaching the topic in a way that it can be discussed.

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    3. Janette, Google "New York Times Upward Mobility Has Not Declined" to find one good articles (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/23/business/upward-mobility-has-not-declined-study-says.html) , but other sites have info also. After I found that one I just looked around. And Google "Gallup Standard of Living Index" (http://www.gallup.com/poll/170999/standard-living-index-climbs-six-year-high.aspx) to get their latest report which came out in June. The Gallup Index is based on perception, but still interesting. The other study is based on actual records.

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    4. JudyC,

      Yes, that is one of the major issues that a lot of people miss in the income inequality debate. The measures of income may show the top 1%, 5% etc. at any given time, but the people in the bracket change considerably from one period to the next. In my working life I have gone from the bottom 20% up to as high as the top 1% one year, now I would show up in the bottom 20% once more since I retired and live largely off of after tax savings (limit my revenue recognition from stock sales to minimize taxes).

      We are in a world where third world countries have sufficient education systems to provide workers for factories, with reasonable infrastructure, good transportation/shipping systems and the internet for communications. This was not so 30 years ago. The developed countries had substantial advantages in those areas that we do not have today. As a result workings in the US are competing with workers in the rest of the world for jobs. Since the median household income is 43,585 in the US in 2013, while China is 6180, Vietnam is 4783. Even many of the former Eastern European countries are below 10,000 per year. If we do not have a multiple of the productivity of the workers in those countries we will continue to lose the competition for production jobs.

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  12. Steve in Los AngelesMon Jun 09, 10:07:00 PM MST

    I will be living the "American Dream." I am postponing living "The American Dream" at least until I am in my late 60s, which I will not reach until about another ten years from now. Both of my parents grew up during "The Great Depression" years. My Dad served and fought in Western and Central Europe in the United States Army during World War II. My parents encouraged me to work hard, to get a good education with a highly employable skill, and to save my money. My parents were wonderful role models and practiced what they preached to me. I was an engineer. I retired from my engineering work at the beginning of March 2007. One thing about my life that enable me to save money is that I never got married and have no children. I never met the right woman.

    I still am too young to live off of my retirement assets. I have a part time job and have a small amount of income from my non-retirement savings. I will wait until I am age 65 to begin living off of my retirement assets. I plan to begin Social Security at age 70. I will continue to live within my means. I have a modest residence, prepare and eat the overwhelming majority of my meals at home, and rarely drive my car, which is a small Toyota (10 years in age) that gets great gasoline mileage. I usually get around by either walking or using public transportation. As I do a LOT of walking, I am in EXCELLENT health. I also enjoy walking, especially on Saturdays and Sundays, through the many shopping malls in the Los Angeles area. I do NOT eat in the dining establishments at the malls, as I am VERY disciplined with regard to spending money. Just in case I get hungry, I bring snacks from home to nibble on. However, I do observe the spending behaviors of the multitude of people at these malls. I also pay attention to how full the parking lots are at these malls. As one can imagine, the dining establishments at these malls on weekends are packed with people. These people, of course, are spending a lot of money. The parking lots, of course, are packed with cars. Many of the cars are expensive vehicles, such as Mercedes-Benz and BMW automobiles. There also are a lot of SUVs, which must be expensive to operate as most of the SUVs get poor gasoline mileage (perhaps ten miles per gallon to twelve miles per gallon). As the price per gallon for gasoline in the Los Angeles area currently is about $4.00 per gallon, gasoline is NOT cheap.

    Throughout my full-time working years, I saved and invested my money very well. During my full-time working years, I lived well beneath my means. I do not feel sorry for those people who live beyond their means by buying expensive homes and expensive cars and by eating at restaurants on a regular basis. Don't these people know what a kitchen is?!

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    1. I have joked with my wife at times that homes of the not-too-distant future will not have kitchens. Just like formal dining rooms are rare today, so many meals are eaten out that the space and appliances in a kitchen are resources wasted. A microwave and fancy coffee machine would probably be fine for a lot of buyers.

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  13. As I read through the many thoughtful comments, I thought too, about those for whom life is simply about survival. How do they view the American Dream? Through no fault of their own, some older folks are laid off from their jobs and unable to find any employment that will provide a living wage. When I was working, I had patients who were forced to take a leave from employment due to their diagnosis of End Stage Renal Disease. Can you imagine trying to find a job that will work around your dialysis schedule? Disability insurance provides some help, but certainly not even close to what one would call a decent standard of living. I had some patients who would literally have to choose between buying food, paying the rent/mortgage, and paying for the 20% medicare copay for their dialysis treatment!

    The long term unemployed are often older, disabled, or with chronic health conditions that hinder their efforts to be gainfully employed. The stereotype of those needing our help as lacking a sense of personal responsibility is simply not true. Sure, there are exceptions to this, but my personal observation is that the vast majority of these folks WANT to be gainfully employed and productive members of society. Of course they want the American Dream. But I think their concept of the American Dream is simply be to live their life without having to worry day to day about where the money will come from to pay for the basic necessities of life.

    I think most of us do to realize the extent of poverty in this country. The latest Census Bureau figures show that 15 percent of Americans, over 46 million people, live at or below the government-defined poverty line.

    So as we ponder the future of the American Dream, I want to remember those who are less fortunate than we are, and acknowledge their struggle just to survive.

    Thanks Bob for a great post! Lots of good comments!

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    1. I agree wholeheartedly that most unemployed or under-employed people want to work but can't for a variety of reasons not of their own making. We can all cite a case of someone trying to beat the system and get something for nothing, but that is far from the norm.

      Too many of us are too quick to point fingers instead of offering a helping hand.

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  14. I found this whole topic and comments fascinating, however I am not sure if I am optimistic or in the other camp.I am a nurse,I have always worked full time or more since age 16 yrs old.Before that I was the babysitter,pet sitter you name it.I am the oldest of 6 children who came from a very comfortable household.I am married my spouse has always been working full time with some overtime.We chose 1 child(now married with 1 child of her own).We have 1 small house(approx 1200 sq ft) paid off in 2007, 2 cars 2002 mini and 2007 honda.I cook we do all our own work like cleaning,mowing,gardens.
    I started working overtime in 1996 on a regular basis-40 hour day job 40 hour evening job and over the years it has ended up being approx 20 hours of overtime/2nd job in the evening.
    My daughter and SIL both have 2 masters degrees, hers in counseling and mental health his in teaching and administration.SIL works full time, daughter works part time my husband/myself and SIL care for baby.
    So on one hand very blessed but this young couple will have education debt for the rest of their lives as they were caught in the phase of being encouraged to go on for master degrees in their fields and not seeing the collapse.The lenders to students compound the interest and do things you can not imagine unless you have witnessed it for your own family.

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    1. You raise an important point that has been in the news a lot: student loans. There are several parts to that issue. Does anyone need to go to a college that charges $30-40,000 a year, are student loans predatory, and how much debt should a student allow him or herself to take on?

      Of course, that raises yet another question: are colleges pricing themselves out of the market for all but the wealthiest among us? Except for ego, it seems unlikely that an Ivy league education is so superior to other options to be worth the price. Heavens, they charge more in one year than I paid for all four years at an excellent private university (Syracuse). I understand inflation, but come on.

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  15. Your recent posts take time to read and re read..very thoughtful stuff. It looks to me like the younger generations are reconsidering all the things we boomers took for granted: home ownership, multiple cars,suburbs,etc. They are smart, they have been through 9/11 and the great recession/depression.The Millenials seem to prefer urban life,community, and smaller scale living in general. They seem to be creating their own new world.. The older, Gen X ers took on some debts, some of them lost their homes and/or jobs, have a more cynical outlook,I think. I believe the "Dream" as we boomers knew it, is almost impossible for most families. If it takes TWO parents working 2 jobs each to own a large house in the burbs, 2 cars and trips to disney world,is it worth it????

    My American Dream,with Ken, took a LONG TIME to achieve, we had to live in apartments, drive one car, and go get good education that would end up in a JOB (Nursing and chiropractic.) Those early marriage/money habits are serving us well in retirement now!

    When old paradigms don't work anymore,society starts reinventing.. I believe the youngest ones, the 20 somethings, are doing that.I am an optimist.

    That said, the student loan debt is the BIGGEST UNFORGIVEABLE element in this country if you ask me.My 25-28 year old relatives have huge burdens.They got good jobs but still... an education should not cost this much!!

    Wow.. a large post, many elements to consider.. no easy answers..

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    1. I promise a few, shorter posts are coming up. The last few have not been light summer reading!

      I have read that the 20-somethings are not nearly as interested in home ownership, the house in the suburb, and possessions as previous generations. I see that as a good thing.

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  16. Bob - Lots of good comments on here. One point made above about public pensions needs to be underlined. Back when we were young (late 60's, early 70's) teaching jobs did not pay very well. One of the ways that municipalities lured grads into the teaching profession was by offering better than average benefits and pension plans. Now that these teachers have worked their entire lives and begun collecting the promised pensions, the municipalities are "shocked" at how much it is costing them, and there is a public uproar over these "entitlements". No one complained when they were paying teachers at a much lower salary than they might have earned in the corporate world. Of course, much of the blame lies with those entrusted with investing and preserving the retirement funds.

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    1. My mom was a teacher in Massachusetts for almost 30 years. The pension she received was excellent and one of the reasons they could retire and live a comfortable life. Even better was the medical coverage. Over three years since mom passed away, my 90 year old father continues to receive supplemental insurance for an absolute pittance. I keep expecting to get a letter from the state telling me his policy will end, but so far, no.

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  17. Bob,
    Leave it to you to raise an issue that overwhelms my thoughts.

    It's is easy to say "raise the minimum wage" so people have a fighting chance, but tell that to the small business owner who employs several entry-level positions. I believe that States should control the minimum wage level and adjust it commensurate with cost of living/inflation, etc. at increments that will not cripple business owners. As a business owner, it was not my responsibility to ensure that all my employees made a "living." It was my responsibility to pay a fair wage for the job that needed to be done and provide a career path for ambitious and productive people. Any assistance that I provided to struggling employees on the side was my business. My capital was at risk. I owed the bank. I was responsible for paying the bills. My livelihood was always at stake. We were in business to turn a profit year after year, and to retain as much of our earnings as possible. More and more, government regulations and interference has made that very difficult. In fact, we have advised our daughter to get a corporate or government job if she wants to secure her future. Times have changed and although we might not like it, we have to adjust.

    Another "solution" that won't fly. Cap CEO pay and close the gap. I don't like it one bit that a CEO, who invests nothing, risks nothing and ultimately produces nothing can earn 600 times the lowest paid employee in the company, but on the other hand, I applaud the guy/gal who risked everything to build a company from the ground up that now employees thousands of people, many of whom are minimum wage earners. They deserve all that they can earn in a free market society. Hedge Fund Managers did not build America, innovators and risk takers did. But, they are all grouped together when it comes to taxation.

    Government partisanship, PAC's, lobbyist, and other special interest groups control policy. Right, wrong or indifferent, someone will profit and someone will pay. Maybe that sounds cynical, but I no longer believe that the majority of people "serve" because they have a calling or want to do good. Votes are sold to the highest bidder - need a bridge, park or downtown renovation - no problem.

    I may sound negative, but I am still optimistic that we can change the trend. Personally, I think change begins with education, family and faith. Good character combined with intellect and a sense of family and community lead people to want to live successful, productive lives. We just have to find places to be supportive - Tutor, Coach, Sunday School Teacher...hand outs don't make a difference, but a hand up will.

    Even with our shortcomings, we are still the greatest nation on earth and I still believe in the dream. We just need to redefine our priorities.

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    1. A heartfelt thanks for taking the time to craft such a complete comment, addressing so many important issues.

      As time so on, I am finding myself becoming less willing to wait for government to find the answers to what ails us. As you note, big money rules and politicians are bought and sold from the moment they start to run for office. Are we surprised they get to a state legislature or Congress and no longer have the ability to think and act in our best interests?

      The American people are going to have to reassert themselves at some point and demand our country back. It has been hijacked by special interests and unprincipled people .

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  18. I would strongly urge you and your readers to read SABBATH by Wayne Muller. Regarding the American dream, it may not be the end all many of us have striven for. My children may never attain the same financial success I have, but they seem to be living fullfilling, rich, meaningful lives without 3 cars and a huge house.
    Traveling in Europe and Ireland, people also do not have our wealth, but seem to be less frantic because they have a national retirement pension in their future. They vacation more, relax more and maybe are not as productive and ambitious. Maybe happier? A look at some of the research says yes.
    Dr Keith

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  19. Speaking for me, I am glad the "dream" life I was striving for 20 years ago is not what happened. The constant striving upwards comes with much too much stress and anxiety. The less I have materially the happier I seem to be.

    I'll take a look at the book.

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  20. Bob, very informative & practical post to see over here. I think it is all about how one plan their financial expenditure. I wish people will consult retirement financial planner for a better & secure life.

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