How has the American Dream changed?

September 10, 2012

When my father left Mexico decades ago, he wasn’t worried about his lack of education. He had spent little time in a classroom. In fact, he believed that was the least important factor in succeeding. He was sold on the idea of “The American Dream.” But to him, triumph and stability came from back-breaking work and determination.

And so, as a young man in the 1950s, he came to Chicago. His friends and relatives were making a solid living here doing factory work. He became a meat packer. He also worked on the Brach’s Confection line and then later, started renovating homes. That meant working long hours, hardly ever seeing his wife and children. The degradation he was put through, constantly being told by his employers that he could easily be replaced by any other “wetback” made my dad only work harder.

He was desperate to be his own boss. Eventually he earned enough from those good-paying factory jobs to work part-time and venture into small business ownership. He grew a solid customer base in construction work. In less than a decade, he built a mini-empire, scooping up real estate to flip long before it became popular. It was then he finally realized his version of the American Dream.

On Sundays, after long work weeks, he would pile us up in a car and we’d go eat at restaurants my dad thought were fancy, like Ponderosa. Afterward, we'd go to the mall, where my father would tell my mom with great pride, “Pick whatever you want.” My father’s American Dream meant he could buy most anything he wanted whenever he wanted. And since he’d grown up with very little, the things he wanted were simple. The most luxurious purchase was a Cadillac he traded in every year.

Never did he encourage us to sit in a classroom in a building covered in ivy. I’m not sure my father even knew those opportunities existed. He never told us to aspire to be doctors or lawyers or even accountants. That was a world my father had never fathomed. 

But I didn’t want to work in construction or a factory. And as it turns out, if I would have gone this route, I might not have had a job today. So, when my high school teachers fostered in me a love for journalism and writing, I latched on to the chance. I went to a liberal arts college where my peers in Generation X and Y were studying filmmaking and fiction writing. Back in the 1990s, we were told to shoot for the stars and that few obstacles could tether us. 

I got a reporting job straight out of college. It paid little but had a promising future and I was doing what I loved.

And then, the recession hit.

Millions of Americans lost their jobs.

I’ve been very lucky. I’m still working, doing what I love. But the past few years have brought about an uncertainty and self-reflection that many of us have never seen in our lifetime.

It’s left many wondering: “Can Lady Liberty still offer us opportunity?” Sure, most other countries are worse off, but America was built as a beacon of hope for the most tired and poor.

Census data shows us that income inequality is at astounding levels. Entire households are questioning whether they should still shoot for the stars or just make ends meet.

It’s quite the conundrum. Those jobs that my father took as a young man are few and far between. And yet, many of my friends and former colleagues look for work while staring at degrees that cost a lot to obtain but have little monetary value.  So, what happens now? Do we continue to pay for a ticket into a workforce that might not have room for us? Do we fight to bring back some of those back-breaking factory jobs that allowed my father to eventually make a small fortune? And who defines the American Dream?

Beginning October 22nd, you’ll meet Americans, specifically young people, throughout the Great Lakes who are asking these questions every day.

Stay tuned here until then, as we’ll be bringing you the latest data and stories about the state of poor and middle-class young people in America.