In the last century, the American Dream looked something like this:
Go to the most elite college that would accept you and finance nearly all of it with taxpayer-subsidized credit.
Get a corporate McJob where you would be chained to a desk for eight to twelve hours a day.
Find a partner who wouldn’t challenge these beliefs.
Crank out a kid for purely vanity reasons.
Move to the suburbs and purchase the biggest house a bank would lend you money for.
Consume much more resources than any single person ever needs in a lifetime.
Instill these values in your children so that another fungible factory worker could consume in your place.
Looking back on it, this is a pretty horrific dream to have for yourself, let alone an entire nation, let alone for the most powerful nation to ever exist in human history.
We deserve a better dream as a country. We deserve a better dream as a species. We deserve a better dream for the twenty first century.
Consumerism is the Anti-Agile Lifestyle
Most everyone in the United States has bought into a highly destructive mindset.
All your life, you have been told that the path to success involves showing up for work on time, putting your head down, following instructions, and buying the most junk you can (and can’t) afford. Whether it’s a thirty year mortgage on a home that is a thousand square feet too large or a new car every two or three years or the latest gadget with a cosmetic upgrade every six months, the cycle of consumption never ends.
This is not agile living. Hell, it is not even the life of freedom the founding fathers envisioned.
At the dawn of the Industrial Age, factory owners had one deep overriding problem: machines were making products too good. Handwoven clothes are far more likely to break down due to one or two bad stitches than a machine-woven textile. A washing machine could do the job of hand-washing clothes in a third of the time.
Technology was making things better and more efficient.
The fear was that Americans would start to work three hours a day and spend the rest of their time in leisure. Seems silly in retrospect, but industrialists had to convince people to keep working to keep their factories going. And the only way to do that was to instill in them a deep desire to acquire stuff. Lots and lots of stuff. Stuff they did not need in order to replace things that did not need replacing.
Is it any wonder that the statistic that most economists and the media use to track “health” of the United States economy is consumer spending? Not happiness, not health, not fulfillment, not even wealth or income. Nope, the end-all be-all measure these days is how much junk we buy each year.
This is insane.
Consumerism kills agility. That’s why consumerism was invented. After all, if you ever realized that you could leave your job at any time and stop buying the junk that advertising wants you to purchase, your corporation and the system that props it up would be in a lot of trouble.
That is not to say all consumption is bad. Consumption can drive innovation and move the ball forward for all of us.
I have a soft spot for flat screen televisions, eReaders, computer devices, and games. But I balance that spending by not consuming things I don’t care about, like new clothes, gold watches, expensive cars, gigantic homes and going out to eat and drink every night. The problem is the consumer lifestyle encourages outsized consumption in every aspect of life.
Consumerism is a set of chains that a lot of people who do not have your best interests in mind have convinced you is a “good thing.” But even a good thing can kill you, if not done in moderation.
Why Bigger is Not Better in Your Personal Life
Just as the quest for bigness in business must come to end, so to must the constant striving for bigger in our personal lives must stop if we are to embrace a life of agility.
For too long, people have used the size of their house, the price of their cars, and the bigness of their paychecks to signal to one another their importance in the Herd. This is neurotic.
There is no relationship between bigness and happiness. There is no relationship between bigness and fulfillment.
The most important thing is to find what is right for each of us as individuals.
For every giant, two thousand square foot home that an American takes up, recall that two Japanese families are comfortable and happy in apartments the size of studios here.
For every Lexus or Mercedes we insist on buying, remember that people are living and thriving in cities with fantastic biking and public transportation options. They’re walking everywhere to stay fit and healthy.
For every corporate climber looking for the next modifier to add to their job title, there are a great many who are voluntarily downsizing so they can spend more time with their families and live a more well-rounded lifestyle.
There will be many of your friends who insist that they love their homes. Or that they’re car aficionados. Or that they are doing great in their corporate McJobs and could not fathom living any other way except working seventy hour weeks. That is all fine and good and some of them might be right.
The point is to avoid big for bigness’ sake. Embrace your agility. Be proud of the fact that you can change your location at any time, or that you bike everywhere, or that you can make a living wage just by working a few hours a day. You will find that many of your friends who bought into the culture of bigger is better may start to envy your flexibility and freedom.
Prototyping a new American Dream
The 2008 financial crisis should have permanently disrupted the nightmare of the “American Dream.”
Yet, already you can see the desire to return to business as usual. People cling to this dream for security. It is all they know. It is what they were promised.
The idea that the future will require a different kind of dream is scary and people resist this change.
I believe the new American Dream will contain a few critical features:
- Access over ownership. Increasingly, we’d rather have a subscription to Netflix than own a thousand DVDs, join Zipcar than own a car, and convert our physical bookshelves to eBooks.
- Meaning over status symbols. The corner office won’t matter as much as mission, meaning, and passion. People will have many smaller careers to cover the gaps in income and fulfillment.
- Flexibility over accumulation. Flexibility will be the new luxury good of the 21st century. When everyone’s leading ultra-busy lives, the ability to make changes at the drop of a hat will come at a premium.
I do not know what a new American Dream will look like exactly. But it is on all of us who are living in this amazing time to shape the new American Dream. Let’s prototype it by taking action to day, reflecting on our results, and iterating to success.
Hopefully, it will not be the nightmare the last American Dream became.
Image by martin.mutch.