The So-Called American Dream: (Some) Frustrations of a 21st-Century Thirty-Foursomething

posted Jul 11, 2013, 3:28 AM by Terrence Moss   [ updated Jul 11, 2013, 3:30 AM ]
The other day, a friend of mine sent me an MSN article about the uncertainty of the American Dream in today's economic climate and how it's becoming extremely difficult to rise up the financial ladder but once there, it's even harder to remain there -- with or without an education.

Still, generation after generation continues to be told that an education is the gateway to success if you work hard enough. Such success has typically been indicated by having a great job that affords you a nice house with a reliable car in a safe neighborhood. And nothing can stand in your way because the world is your oyster. 

Blah, blah and blah. We've been lied to. 

"Lied to" might be a bit harsh. Misguided might be better.

Because those great jobs are becoming fewer and farther between unless you live in Asia or are imported from those areas because you know shit that Americans don't (or aren't being taught). It's criminal that so many jobs have gone overseas without anything but Walmart and new technologies to replace them, the latter of which few people of a certain age are qualified for anyway. And no one wants to teach new tricks to an old dog so a lot of the jobs that do come up are being filled by people raised in this technology age (who don't even know what a Zack Morris phone is).

The tradition of learning a skill or trade and finding a job right out of high school or college that fits your qualifications is gone because employers now want you to have all the skills. But they only want you to have experience in one or two of them even though they're combining multiple positions into one or two to save money. And forget about keeping that job for 30 or 40 years while collecting a pension at the end of it to carry you through to death because every week it seems that companies merge, are bought out or just go out of business. Or you have a manager who's threatened by the fact that you have a brain -- which you actually use -- and aren't the mindless pushover they thought they were hiring. So that job doesn't last as long as it probably should. 

But even if you do hit on a solid career path and shove your way up the corporate ladder to reach a certain position before you're 30 in order to start a family, it requires more hours than there are in the week because companies are trying to do more with less to protect their already-safe bottom lines. Sure it pays well but at a certain point you look for similar jobs with other companies thinking they understand the concept of the work/life balance as they say they do -- only to find out they don't.

So you've been lied to again -- not misguided, lied to.

Then you burnout and seek to change careers. There goes that family plan.

Now you have to start over. And chances are you aren't going to make that same amount of money right away. Or anytime soon. Or ever again. So you struggle financially and emotionally. You bounce town to town up and down the dial trying to find a way back into anything that's not what you were doing before. And you probably have to do this a few more times before you fall into a new career path -- not choose, fall. 

In the meantime, the cost of living goes up and wages continue to go down because people are scared. Jobs are hard to find unless you're in demand -- which most of us aren't because we're just human capital to most companies. So if you're offered a job, you take it at whatever salary is offered because you've been out of work for so long and just need SOMETHING -- even if it winds up being what they were doing before.

Companies know this. They're in the driver's seat and taking full of advantage of the fact they have a growing employee pool in the back seat bound and gagged with few options until they throw you out at the side of the road because they've reduced you to a desperate shadow of your former bright-eyed, ambitious self who graduated college with the mindset that the world is your oyster only to find that in reality, that oyster is clamped shut.

So you either move back home with you parents or enter into a roommate situation because the cost of rent is too high in areas where there is anything of interest going on to live alone and still be able to eat. 

Then you have to have a car -- unless you live in one of those areas where there is anything of interest going on that has, at the very least, somewhat decent mass transportation.

Then there are the student loans -- which were supposed to be worth taking out in the first place because you should have been able to get a job to cover them in the second place, but it's not quite so. 

So now you to wonder if a college education is worth anything anymore beyond the experience -- an experience that may or may not net you a job at all since everyone after the class of 2000 seems to have graduated into the same varying levels of economic recession that reports keep trying to say is over.

Lucky us. 

So now the younger generations, save for the very rare of these who land a cushy job in finance or technology right out of college, are finding it nearly impossible to start their adult lives. At 22, life comes down to a decision of paying off the student loans slowly and be in debt for the next 20 years while you save for a house (which is going to be hard to do without a decent job) or paying off the loans now and postpone saving for the the down payment on house (which is going to be hard to do without a decent job) because it's impossible to do both.

By and large, we early to mid-thirtysomethings are the first generation who have so far been unable to do better than our parents, which sucks because most of us want to -- even if to just be able to help them out should they fall on hard financial times (because God knows it's harder for a Baby Boomer to find their way back into a job market that values youth for the cheaper labor than wisdom that employers should want to pay a little more for).

We're the first generation for whom college degrees are largely irrelevant despite the fact that they're still necessary and even required despite their general uselessness. Going to college after high school used to be a big deal, but now everyone goes. And everyone is going for the same specific type of work because only certain sectors are growing, hiring or still in demand. The broad-based education I received is no longer valued. Employers are no longer as interested in a Moss-of-all-trades. They now want trade masters.

But fear not. There is always temp work -- the fastest-growing sector of the current shitshow we call a job market. (I'm currently temping but it works for me right now. Still, it doesn't work for everyone who finds themselves having to do it.) Just don't ever get sick because you don't get any benefits. Don't break anything because then the insurance company you're required to purchase coverage from is just looking for a way to not have to pay for it anyway. And don't expect any level of job security because no such a thing exists anymore.

So go get a trade, young people. Become a mechanic because people will always need a car. And most of them will be used because people can't afford a new one anymore. Screw college unless your family can legitimately afford it or the college is going to fork out a lot of scholarship money for the pleasure of having you on their student roster. And don't get into bed with Citibank -- or any bank for that matter. They, like a lot of employers, are just out to screw you as hard and as raw as they can.

None of this is everyone's experience. Some of it isn't even mine. But it's a lot of people's. So change your vision of what the American Dream is because it's no longer having a decent job that affords you a nice house with a reliable car in a safe neighborhood. Now it's just surviving.

And who dreams of just surviving?

With contributions from Seva Naymark.