The New American Dream

Image from The Ladies' home journal, courtesy of the Internet Archive Book Images
Image from The Ladies’ home journal, courtesy of the Internet Archive Book Images

When circumstances shift dramatically in one direction, a correction will usually follow.

The generation that experienced the Great Depression and the Second World War understood conservation. Having gone without, they learned to treat food and possessions with reverence, knowing acutely what it meant to have little, or nothing. Ownership was security.

The time immediately following this must have been a dream for advertisers. Most didn’t have many things, meanwhile, fears were easy to identify and cater to. (Today’s advertiser, on the other hand, needs to invent or amplify a problem, in order to establish a compelling means of selling to consumers.) Just look to those post-war ads (from the “Golden Age of Advertising”) and you’ll find the same message repeated: There’s a product to solve any problem.

This led to a tidal wave of “want” that ran smack dab into another, and another, and another, and another. It fused with American Dream, encountered Generation Me, was given a seal of approval by Reganism, and was later propelled by the rocket-fuel of off-shore labor. Our situation matches that of a starving kid left to run amok at Baskin-Robbins (only to be forgotten there for the next 60 years).

Extend the metaphor and we find my generation representing the grand-children of the Baskin-Robbins shut-in. We haven’t gone without. Instead, most of us have lived believing there’s always more to be had. We’ve learned that it’s easier to buy new than fix anything. Disposable is our default setting, and we’re unwilling to shoulder a moment’s inconvenience to do the right thing. Even as we witness the brutal human cost that comes with our obsession with shiny things, we turn a blind eye.

In lock-step with this is advertising that tells us it’s not just acceptable to continue our bad behavior, but rather, our responsibility and birthright. Keep consuming, kid… The economy needs it, and you deserve it!

All of this might be a little more understandable if we found ourselves happy. This doesn’t seem to be the case, though. In fact, a recent study suggests that the French and Americans have the highest depression rates in the world. Yes, you read that correctly: It isn’t those living in abject poverty who are in need of billions of dollars of antidepressants—nope, it’s our sad, pampered asses.

Where does this leave us? With full closets, empty bank accounts, few job prospects, and the new American Dream: of simply being debt-free.

We need to reexamine how we look at our lives and our stuff and redefine our way of interfacing with the world. More than anything else, we have to unlearn our belief that buying more will lead us to happiness.

Otherwise, this addiction will—very literally—kill us.


  1. Enjoying the new blog immensely, karj.
    I’ve been thinking about these concepts for a while now.
    How do we reconcile this concern with the type of work we do?
    In my personal life I reduce consumption and live simply, yet in my business,
    I help people sell more stuff.

    I believe this gives me an opportunity to help other entrepreneurs do business in a way that contributes to healthier communities, rather than just self-centred consumption.

    Any thoughts?

    BTW – Now the image is stuck in my head: a kid in Baskin-Robbins for 60 years. Ew.

  2. You’re right Niall; it is. This site is just using a stock template for the time being, so I can get some posts up. A proper design is in the works.

    Thanks for the positive feedback Melanie! As for how we reconcile this concern in our work, I have no good answer. We thought it started as a professional practice issue, when we launched, but our opinions have changed since then.

    In part, this is what I’m hoping this blog may lead to: a discussion on how we think, and on how to change these habits/beliefs. (I’m sorry that I can’t be more clear about this yet, but I will as things unfold.)

    The point I’m trying to get at, is that any real change will need to be systemic, instead of limited to any one industry.

  3. This is so well written and thought provoking. One further thing that I think must be added to the discussion is that digital technology itself has dramatically affected our experience of work and our perception of value. With the rise in digital technology labor has become primarily immaterial and sensory fulfillment and satisfaction that we once gained through doing tasks with our hands (making do instead of buying new, for example) is minimized today to such a great extent that in many people’s lives working with our hands is limited almost entirely to typing on a keyboard or manipulating a mouse.

    I think this shift has had a deep cultural impact: on our economy, for sure, and on our perception of ourselves, what we feel is valuable, and what kind of experiences we seek. Our culture has shifted towards the immaterial. Could it be that our material consumption is also in part a craving in response to a lack of material engagement with our world?

    I’d love to hear your take on this for sure…

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