April 20, 2009 -- A few weeks ago, when ABC News put out a new poll showing that 62 percent of Americans are spending less (on things like vacations, cars, dining out), our polling czar, Gary Langer, said we were witnessing "no less than a diminution of the American dream."
That got me thinking. What exactly is the American Dream? Could it be dying? Changing? Are we heading into a radically different future? Could this future possibly be simpler and better?
Apparently I'm not alone in wondering about this. There are some fascinating theories floating around
Peggy Noonan just wrote an excellent column on the topic, in which she makes the following predictions about what life will be like under a scaled-down American Dream:
"There will be fewer facelifts and browlifts, less Botox, less dyed hair among both men and women. They will look more like people used to look, before perfection came in. Middle-aged bodies will be thicker and softer, with more maternal and paternal give. … The new home fashion will be spare. This will be the return of an old WASP style: the good, frayed carpet; dogs that look like dogs and not a hairdo in a teacup, as miniature dogs back from the canine boutique do now."
Noonan was inspired by this article in USA Today about the Wojtowicz family, who, squeezed by the economic downturn, "gave up vacation cruises, restaurant meals, new clothes and high-tech toys to become 21st-century homesteaders."
"Now Patrick Wojtowicz, 36, his wife Melissa, 37, and daughter Gabrielle, 15, raise pigs and chickens for food on 40 acres near Alma, Mich. They're planning a garden and installing a wood furnace. They disconnected the satellite TV and radio, ditched their dishwasher and a big truck and started buying clothes at resale shops."
The article says the Wojtowiczs are part of a trend: more Americans are stockpiling food, buying vegetable seeds, canning and preserving products and learning to sew.
The Wojtowiczs see this trend as a positive one.
"The earn, spend, earn era has come to an end for us," Patrick Wojtowicz says on truenorthfound.blogspot.com, their blog. "The idea of living a fuller, more satisfying life seems simple to us now. … Money, cash, credit, maybe they don't matter. Maybe, just maybe, it is those things that impede our ability to be truly happy."
The Wojtowiczs' scaling back of the American Dream is downright mild when compared to what is envisaged by the Transition Movement, a group featured in the Sunday New York Times Magazine.
This group trains local communities across the country to be totally self-sufficient, foreseeing a world where modern civilization falls apart as a result of global economic collapse, climate change and the end of the world's oil supplies.
"Transition's approach is adamantly different from that of the survivalists … in bunkers stocked with gold and guns," says the New York Times Magazine. "The movement may begin from a similarly dystopian idea: that cheap oil has recklessly vaulted humanity to a peak of production and consumption, and no combination of alternative technologies can generate enough energy, or be installed fast enough, to keep us at that height before the oil is gone. But Transition then takes an almost utopian turn. … We can consciously plot a path into a lower-energy life -- a life of walkable villages, local food and artisans and greater intimacy with the natural world -- which, on balance, could actually be richer and more enjoyable than what we have now."
Clearly this view of the future is well outside of mainstream forecast.
That said, in Washington, D.C., the politicians are gearing up for a titanic battle over how to structure a post-collapse economy. According to this article:
"In a series of comments in recent weeks, Mr. Obama has begun to sketch a vision of where he would like to drive the economy once this crisis is past. His goals include diminishing the consumerism that has long been the main source of growth in the United States, and encouraging more savings and investment. He would redistribute wealth toward the middle class and make the rest of the world less dependent on the American market for its prosperity."
The common denominator among all these visions of the future is a less consumerist American dream. Which seems like a big change. However, a fascinating article in Vanity Fair suggests we may all be under a false impression of what the American Dream really is.
According to the article, the term originally comes from a 1931 book called "The Epic of America" by James Truslow Adams, who defined it thusly: "that American dream of a better, richer and happier life for all our citizens of every rank."
Over time, the article argues, the original Dream got "decoupled from the common good." First, as Americans started to feel it was their birthright to have houses, cars, televisions and college degrees. (Hard to argue with any of that stuff.) Then, as mutual funds, mortgages and credit cards saw Americans striving madly for more, bigger, better, faster.
As the article astutely points out, this shift is charted in popular television shows. "The Honeymooners" lived in a grubby tenement. "Ozzie and Harriet" lived in a lovely, modest home. "The Brady Bunch" had an even bigger home and could afford a Hawaiian vacation. The denizens of "Dynasty" and "Dallas" lived in mansions. All of which led inexorably to the spoiled brats of "Gossip Girl" and MTV's "The Hills."
But it appears that, even at MTV, the times are changing. According to Sunday's New York Times, the network is launching new reality shows, with a twist.
"Four buddies set off across the country in an RV, video camera in tow, to knock items off their "100 things to do before I die" list: kiss the Stanley Cup, get a tattoo, grow a mustache. With plenty of high jinks and adolescent humor, "The Buried Life" seems like the perfect MTV reality show, except for one unexpected twist. At each stop the group helps deserving locals with their own wishes. In Idaho, for example, they took eight children with brain cancer on a shopping spree at Toys "R" Us."
And perhaps this is the most hopeful sign of all. If our young people want programming with a social conscience, it might indicate that the next generation will restore the original American Dream.