Chickens in pots, cars in garages, kids walking to school, salaries fat, jobs for life, families happy, Little League and soda pop, juicy turkeys for Thanksgiving and candy corn on Halloween.
There’s a juicy prosperity Americans like to say they’re entitled to.
A sweet life. The American dream.
For a new film, Out of Reach, film director Faith Kohler, cinematographer Colin Sytsma and I and our film crew interviewed different generations of Milwaukee residents about their conception of the “American dream”, a familiar cultural trope politicians still use to invoke an expected prosperity.
As I described in a new op-ed this week for Newsweek, we wanted to understand how different generations of Americans understand the “American dream.”
It’s the subtext of our Moundsville film on PBS, and of Amanda Page’s Peerless City, both co-directed by David Bernabo. For decades, aided by the very lucky break of being the surviving superpower of World War Two, the American dream appeared incarnate in small towns like Moundsville and cities like Milwaukee. Born middle class in 1946 America, you actually could expect lifetime employment in an age of prosperity.
And now, in many ways, that’s gone. The decay of domestic manufacturing, the corporatization of the retail economy, automation, suburbanization, political mismanagement, the digital economy’s destruction of the journalism industry, and a cluster of other factors have torched main streets and reshaped America’s economic geography. (Yes, at the same time, life has improved in America in many ways, especially for women and people of color. Many things are true at the same time.)
That economic collapse of much of the country, which is worthy of grief and acknowledgement of grief, has also raised the question of American identity. We wonder: What makes us American? Is anything still exceptional about the land of the Constitution, jazz and baseball?
The contemporary definition comes from Great Depression-era writer James Truslow Adams, who wrote, in his 1931 book, Epic of America, that the American dream “is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.”
But what if, in a country that is increasingly unequal and less and less meritocratic, that’s no longer so easy, or even possible, for people without college degrees, for example?
There’s no obvious answer, but one part of the solution, we found, is the American spirit of the entrepreneurial hustle, boosted by steady inflows of hardworking immigrants.
“You have to think outside the box and make connections,” retired postal worker and entrepreneur Rose Hart told us in Moundsville. “If you’re out there on your own, you’re gonna suffer.”
In places like Milwaukee, which have mostly been left out of the 21st century tech boom, millennials talk about mastering the gig economy, driving Ubers, understanding finance and buying houses to rent out. It’s about always looking for your next act and maybe, sometimes, a bit of hucksterism. (It’s not for nothing that we collectively elected the guy selling himself as a self-made billionaire.)
Whatever your politics, almost everybody has to hustle these days. “Americans have been doing this for 200 years,” conservative commentator Charlie Sykes told us. “And so maybe in a sense that’s reviving a different approach to the American dream.”
That’s not for everybody, of course, and even people who can’t work at all deserve support and care and three meals a day.
As writer and Our Towns creator James Fallows, whose foundation promotes new storytelling about places in America that are coming back to life, says, “we’ve always been in crisis.”
And we’re in crisis now. There’s not enough work that pays well. This morning in Pittsburgh, the air smells dirty. Politicians are getting physically assaulted.
In crisis, it’s important to keep working hard at stuff, and talk about it. We hope Out of Reach can show the legitimate grief of a nation sapped of broad economic vitality, lift up the people getting after it, and inspire conversations about what the new American dream.
As is said in Peerless City: “Who’s going to save us? We are.”
John W. Miller