Why the American Dream isn’t what we think

Jamie Dimon, chairman and CEO of JPMorgan Chase LLP, is quoted as saying “The American Dream is alive but fraying” in regards to the most recent Business Roundtable report, which explicitly counters the view held for decades that the sole focus of a corporation and its CEO is to maximize profits.

But, tightly woven or fraying, it isn’t really what we think it is. So, why do I say that about “The American Dream”?

No alt text provided for this image

Well, here’s an interesting thought exercise:

The American Dream is really the Global Dream

The American Dream is based upon a number of ideals, and although it’s archetypical it actually isn’t a purely American dream at all. It’s founded upon the idea that capitalism, which is a fundament of modern global business, can align with hard work, passion, and freedom to allow a genuine opportunity for prosperity, success and upward social mobility for families, in a society that (hypothetically) has relatively few barriers to this.

I’m sure we can mostly agree that this is now something that is represented as a dream in some way across most countries around the world. Partially, this has come about because elements of America’s culture have spread for the last 100+ years, through media, film and business especially (for example, the ubiquity of McDonald’s is incredible – I have seen one on a beach on a small island in the Philippines, with people lining up!), alongside the fact that English, more specifically US English, has become the primary business language worldwide (as mentioned in other articles, language frames our thoughts, so when you think in American English you think in more American terms).

So it’s no longer constrained by the East and West coast, if it ever truly was.

No alt text provided for this image

The Largest Generation are a Global People

A growing number of people are having trouble with the concept of the American Dream however, and they are invariably of the Millennial generation. They’re aware that it’s harder than ever before to achieve it, and they know it’s really world-wide. It’s further out of reach for them than previous generations – think of the difference between buying a house in the midst of the Baby-Boomer generation, and the difficulty faced by Millennials today. It’s also rapidly being considered to not be what it’s represented as, too, because in reality there are considerable barriers in much of the west (at the least) to widespread individual prosperity, success and upward familial social mobility.

Additionally, they have a strong sense of personal brand, identity, and belonging – they aren’t prepared to become a cog in a machine. They want to be stakeholders, part of a solution, and visibly recognised as such. They want to be acknowledged as individuals.

They are different; they are coming into spending and directorship power as they hits their 40s; they engage and think differently to previous generations. They hold a primary strong identity across work, personal and online presence which is also a personal Brand, and they think less in terms of cultural identity and more in terms of individuality as a member of Humanity at large. I’ll post another article later on what it means to be Millennial and what the generations mean, but for now it’s enough to understand:

They have a Global Dream, not an American one, and they are demanding it.

No alt text provided for this image

Isn’t Capitalism part of the problem?

This is one of those “Yes… and No” answers. Capitalism per se isn’t necessarily a problem, but hyper-capitalism is – the basic description of Neoliberalism.

Neoliberalism doesn’t align with the above Roundtable shift because it essentially promotes the belief that nothing has value unless it makes money (I’ll delve into Neoliberalism more deeply elsewhere). This is oppositional to finding value in individuality, humanity, culture, work-life balance, integrity, mental and physical health, and all the other human things we have begun demanding again, because many of these things don’t bring financial profit; they are rewarding in other ways. Neoliberalism aligns very well with bureaucracy, in fact, because both have been used to removed human aspects from business in the name of efficiency (whether that efficiency has been achieved is widely open for debate, watch for other articles!).

A larger part of the problem is humanity’s proclivity towards polarising. We rarely tend to take a measured middle ground when we can leap in and pendulum across to one end of a scale!

In the grand scheme, Capitalism isn’t necessarily mutually exclusive to socialism – a mixed economic system can allow for capital, private property, and economic freedom, while allowing governments some control to achieve social aims, allowing monopolies etc but regulated, and a whole host of other balances.

In the same way, Socialism isn’t necessarily bad as a democratic ideal – anyone believing in a free health service and looking after veterans and homeless, and similar is aligned with it. A true mixed economy would essentially allow us to pursue earning for ourselves without being too selfish, which is a great idea – precisely what we want to achieve in business right now, in many ways. 

In practice this is hard to achieve, and it’s estimated it’s less efficient than a free market. Certainly those markets such as France that are considered partially mixed economies I believe to still be quite weighted towards the capitalism side. But I think the point is that it’s something that can be explored, and the people best suited to (and with the most right to) this exploration are, now, the Millennial Generation with a Global view. 

This is all highly complex, of course – it involves mindsets, markets, the environment, the current state of business, engagement, and a whole host of other areas (hence my widely varying work).

So really, the original American Dream has elements of a mixed economy – but the current practicality is really very neoliberal, and in my opinion, very unhealthy for both businesses and individuals long term. I do not believe the (Global) Dream is being realised right now, but I think we’re looking in that direction. 

This is obviously a widely-shared opinion, given not only the Roundtable report itself (which puts a stamp of formal authenticity on the movement), but the radical and sweeping shifts in business practice and focus, championed by people like Gary Vaynerchuk, Brigette Hyancinth, Bill and Melinda Gates, and increasing numbers of other leaders (the 180 of the Roundtable inclusive) too exhaustive to list.

I’m seeing it here on LinkedIn from a majority of you, too.

No alt text provided for this image

The Choice Faced By Us All

Currently the Global Dream is propped against a Global Nightmare. We’re making great strides in redefining business and the humanity within it; we’re moving towards value for stakeholders – the shareholders, customers, employees, suppliers and communities – over simple profit for shareholders. But Neoliberal attitudes still have a lot of weight, and many companies are reluctant to let go of bureaucratic control and that focus. It takes effort. We’re still getting used to the (long-overdue) realisation that the environment is now a critical factor in all this, as well. We need radical attitude changes, and we’re moving that way.

I think we’ve got a real chance at a bright, productive, kind future where we can still earn our own way and benefit individually as well as together, and I’m encouraged by the wealth of forward-thinking I’m seeing on platforms like LinkedIn. But many companies still need help; many executives still need encouragement to find a new path which will be even more profitable, because change is frightening at a personal and professional level, and uncertainty is the biggest source of our fear. Ego plays a part; refusal or inability to see the rapid market shifts and engagement changes plays another.

Some of us specialise in helping businesses find certainty in uncertainty. Reach out to us!But don’t just reach out to specialists like me – reach out to the greatest asset you have as well. Your employees, your customers – your outliers, your mavericks, the Millennial generation. They have new and innovative ways forward to help this dream be realised. Use all of us!

From my own work, I strongly suspect the Dream will not be realised by bureaucracies, but by ecosystems, for a number of reasons.

You can’t make changes in a complex system without affecting everything else in that system. That’s why I have such a holistic approach, and advocate us all to do so; it’s needed for true change. If we want all the things I see discussed every day here for business and individual alike, we have to make large changes, together – and that really needs championing by the people best able to bring about this change.

Isn’t it time many of us stepped back and let the new generation that is going to live this future at least help guide it? If anyone is going to make this Global Dream happen, it’s them. 

No alt text provided for this image

Leave Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *