I have a friend in his late-20s who is very concerned that he hasn’t quite graduated into the ranks of the achievers of the American Dream. He has friends, a good-paying job and is healthy. But those trappings of success aren’t enough. From his perspective, his life won’t really be in order until he is married and has children. A white picket fence would be a helpful proof point that his hard work had finally paid off.
I must admit, there was a time when I was committed to some pre-fabricated hallmarks of success. As an ‘80s kid, I was awash in images shown on television programs like Silver Spoons and Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. I developed champagne tastes on a Kool-Aid allowance, and was convinced I wouldn’t be happy unless my house had a game room complete with a video arcade. And I would spice up my commute by alternating among my several exotic automobiles.
Today, I have no video arcade, however I am proud of the ongoing game of Words with Friends I play with my wife via smartphone. The 2011 Chevy Traverse in my driveway makes up the entirety of my car collection.
And I am ridiculously happy.
I am happier than the middle school version of me ever imagined. I have a loving (and patient) spouse. My adult children are loyal to one another, are kind to their parents, and serve their friends and community well. I am engaged in meaningful work and service. The power, fame and “greed is good” level of income that I once thought were required to achieve the American Dream turned out to be far less important to me than living a life of connection and impact.
I am also seriously discontented.
As thrilled as I am with my family, my circle of friends and my immediate sphere of influence, I can’t help but lament the missed and missing opportunities in the broader community.
“I have a dream,” Martin Luther King, Jr. famously intoned. “It is a dream deeply rooted in the American Dream.” The iconic occasion has a name almost forgotten to history: The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Jobs, in our region, could be considered a dream come true. The State’s Employment Security Office reports steady employment growth and LinkedIn reports a persistent number of job openings. The heartache is that many of those openings require skills the 56,000 unemployed in our region don’t have. And then there are the 9 percent of adults and children officially living in poverty and 12,000 people experiencing homelessness.
Yes, the Freedom Movement in our country has certainly made progress since that speech in 1963. And still, there are people in our community who don’t live free of discrimination, free of harassment, free of many of the ills being protested since the founding of our nation.
One of the attractions of the American Dream is in the self-determined, upwardly mobile, universality of it. The idea that we all can make our own path, create our own version, and live out the consequences of our choices and effort. People come from all over the world to give it a go here in this land of opportunity. And unquestionably, the United States is a land of promise.
At the same time, some of those promises have been under-delivered or flat-out broken.
King had a dream. Deeply rooted in the American Dream. I have a dream that the American Dream can become more and more real for more and more people.
What do you think? What’s your American Dream? Go to LeadershipEastside.com and take the Eastside American Dream survey. The results will be released at our State of the Eastside luncheon on April 1.
And keep dreaming. We can’t build a better future if we can’t imagine it first.
James Whitfield is the president and CEO of Leadership Eastside. For more information, visit www.leadershipeastside.com.