A new version of the American Dream

These are the things I try not to do within an hour of going to bed: drink caffeine; eat sugar; use the Internet; fight with Caroline.  To that list of late-evening prohibitions let me add a fifth—no reading articles by Walter Russell Mead.  I made that mistake yesterday.  His three-part series on restoring the American Dream set my mind racing and it wasn’t until nearly 2am that I finally got the horses back in the barn.  What follows is a brief recap of Mead’s argument about how the American Dream is changing and some thoughts about how I see a new version of the American Dream playing out in my own life.

According to Mead the first iteration of the American Dream was the dream of the individual family farm.  This was Thomas Jefferson’s version of the American Dream.  For two centuries the family farm was the organizing unit of American social and economic life; it defined how family members interacted with each other; it provided Americans with food, shelter and the material necessities of life; it was the backdrop against which people lived out the American version of the good life.

But the dream of the family farm began to founder in the late-19th century.  Sweeping geopolitical forces were to blame: the best farm land was already taken meaning new generations of Americans had to settle for marginal tracts in places like Oklahoma that were never meant to sustain agriculture; and improvements in agricultural production led to a glut of corn and wheat, and thus lower prices for farmers when they brought their crops to market.  The world changed, fast, and it left the family farm behind.

It took almost half-a-century for a new version of the American Dream to develop.  There was a lot of political and cultural turmoil in the intervening years, just like there’s a lot of political and cultural turmoil now.  People feared that the end of family farming meant the end of the American way of life.  But then a second version of the American Dream emerged, and it promised even greater prosperity and greater freedom than the family farm had before it.  Mead calls this second version the dream of the “suburban homestead.”

This is a dream that most of us recognize because it was vibrant in our lifetimes and has only recently begun to fade.  It was the dream of Leave it to Beaver: Dad worked, mom stayed home, the kids went to school, and life was awash in inexpensive, mass-produced goods (canned vegetables! washing machines!) that made life freer and easier than it had ever been before.

But now the dream of the suburban homestead has begun to come apart.  The forces unraveling it are as sweeping and unstoppable as the forces that sundered the dream of the family farm a century earlier.  For one, the good land is all taken (the nicest suburbs have become astronomically expensive; Caroline laments that there’s no way we could ever afford to buy a house in the suburban-DC neighborhood where she grew up).  And for two, the jobs that supported the suburban dream on a national scale are disappearing—either outsourced overseas or automated out of existence.  So if the suburban dream is dead, too, the question is—what takes its place?

Caroline and I have thought a lot about this over the last five years, though not on the grand scale that Mead thinks about.  For us the question has been more personal, as we’ve tried to figure out what kind of lives we want for our family and ourselves.  We’ve tried to use two principles to guide the big lifestyle choices we’ve had to make: We want control over our time and we want our lives to feel coherent.  I’ll talk about each of those in turn.

First—control over our own time.  For me, this has meant freelancing instead of working for a company.  In my twenties I had a few traditional jobs though none of them lasted very long.  On a gut level I had a hard time swallowing the idea that someone else would tell me where I needed to be from 9am-6pm five days a week, or would dictate how many days I could take off to spend with my family around Christmas.  I might have been willing to accept these constraints if I’d found work that I was incredibly excited to do, but I never did.  And at the same time I’d been given enough opportunity in life to make it feasible for me to strike out on my own.

As is often the case the price of time has been money.  I make a lot less than most graduates of the Harvard Class of 2003.  The key realization for me, though, was that all the extra dollars I would have made if I’d become a lawyer were not worth the sacrifice in personal freedom I would have had to make to earn those dollars.  And this, I think, is a calculation that rings true for many Americans who feel like they have enough money and enough stuff but not enough freedom in their daily lives to spend their time the way they want to.  (Of course, there are also many Americans on the lower-end of the class scale for whom this doesn’t ring true at all; contra Charles Murray, they’d eagerly trade time for the opportunity to work hard at a job that paid well.)

Second—coherence.  One of the things I like least about the suburban ideal is the way it divides life into discrete roles and identities.  Work and home are separate spheres.  Men and women perform separate roles.  Kids race from school to Cub Scouts to soccer practice.  There is a whole lot of moving parts, but it’s not necessarily the case that they all pull in the same direction or all reflect the same underlying values.

I don’t like the idea of my “work” persona and my “home” persona being distinct.  It feels discordant to me that I’d go off to a job and spend my whole day with one group of people, thinking and acting in one particular kind of way, and then I’d go home and be with a different group of people, thinking and acting in a different kind of way.  I want the cohesiveness of feeling that all the parts of my life are integrated; I want the coherence of feeling like I’m completely and fully myself in every part of my day. (I guess you could say that, in a sense, what I’m after is a 21st-century version of the family farm.)

To some extent this prioritization of time and coherence is idiosyncratic; these values reflect my particular disposition and the particular family culture that Caroline and I have put together, and certainly the lives we’ve crafted for ourselves have only been possible because of the above-average rates of education and opportunity we’ve received.  But at the same time it seems clear to me that our choices have been shaped by broader cultural currents; that they reflect a changing idea of what the American Dream looks like in practice.

It makes sense that each iteration of the American Dream would be shaped in response to the one that came before it.  The suburban ideal was desirable in large part because it was not the family farm.  Blue- and white-collar jobs freed people from having to toil on the land from dawn to dusk.  The consumer products revolution freed people from having to provide every material necessity by their own hands.  Safeguards like union jobs, pensions, Medicaid, Medicare—the whole social safety net extending from employers to the federal government—meant that families were no longer one false step away from calamity.

But progress had its price.  Once you get past the surface warts of the suburban ideal (the McMansions, the SUVs, etc.) it seems clear to me that the real price of the suburban dream was paid in time and coherence.  The coherent life of the family farm was broken into discrete suburban roles and identities that divided work from home and men from women; and the suburban economy instantiated all sorts of restrictions on how people spend their time: the time-clock, the 9-5, two weeks paid vacation, and (most banefully of all) the daily commute, which researchers routinely identify as the feature of modern life most anathema to personal happiness.

Last night I talked with Caroline about these ideas and when I got to the end she said, “So, what is it?  What is the third American Dream?”  I don’t know, of course, and Mead says he doesn’t know either.  The suburban ideal would have been hard to imagine in 1890 and it’s just as hard to picture what the iconic American lifestyle will look like sixty years from now.

But if I had to guess, I’d venture that the Third American Dream will be an urban dream—where physical proximity allows work life, home life, and social life to be more coherently integrated—and it will be an information technology dream that gives people more flexibility about when and where they work and more freedom in general about how they spend their time.

Links to Walter Russell Mead’s essays on the American Dream

Beyond Blue Part I: The Crisis of the American Dream

Beyond Blue Part II: Recasting the Dream

Beyond Blue Part III: The Power of Infostructure