The stuff and the status are not the goal

posted by Jeff | Monday, September 12, 2016, 5:30 PM | comments: 0

There are two groups of people in the US that definitely fall into the "hurting" category, and we hear about them all of the time in this election cycle. The first group are minorities, and African-Americans in particular. There isn't a lot of mystery about why they're hurting given our nation's history of institutional racism, and the socioeconomic problems around it. But the other group, the working poor, is a more complicated problem that I'm still learning about. It's not as simple as a group of people who make poor decisions, and raising minimum wage isn't the simple solution either.

In a discussion on Facebook, a guy I vaguely know online responded to a friend's post commenting that he often wondered why he didn't have a nicer car, or live in a nicer house, etc. His phrasing struck me as interesting, in that he said he no longer believed in "the American dream." I took this to mean that the things he didn't have were the American dream.

That got me to thinking about our expectations, as a culture and as a society. That Americans are characterized as generally materialistic is not surprising. Our rabid consumerism is arguably out of control, and I think it has really screwed up our definition of normal. Maybe it wasn't a "good" normal even when I was a kid. That definition was about a degree, a nice house, two cars, two kids and fat pensions. My suspicion is that it's the nuance in that definition that has changed, because the minimum viable way to live is actually just having shelter, food to eat, healthcare and a job.

I'm probably not the right person to talk about this, seeing as how I drive an electric car and live in the suburbs in a McMansion (is it still called that under 3k sq. ft.?), but external factors aside, I wouldn't be here if I didn't challenge the notion of what the dream is supposed to be. I subscribed to that vision in my 20's, bought crap that I didn't need on credit and tried to adhere to a lifestyle that probably had little to do with what I actually needed. As soon as I had a little money, I rushed to buy a house. When the economy took a dump, twice in the oughts, I eventually learned that maintaining this version of the dream was not sustainable. I imagine the jarring experience of divorce reinforced this.

There is some anecdotal evidence that the classic dream is not the goal it used to be. Many 20 somethings are hoarding cash and living college-style. Small homes (and tiny homes!) are becoming trendy. Some people even, gasp, hang on to their smart phones for more than a year!

Challenging the dream that was defined as stuff and status was something I should have done 10 years earlier than I did, but it has made a huge difference in the quality of my life. I may have been able to course-correct only because I work in a fairly lucrative field. I live comfortably, but I have no desire to live at a more expensive level even though I could. Living expensive is not something to confuse with quality of life. Living expensive as possible should not be the goal.


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