R.I.P.? The American Dream

Nearly 20 years ago, as I sat in a high school English class, the teacher told us all about the American Dream. And then she said there was one generation that wasn’t going to experience that dream, and she pointed at us.

As grim as things look right now, I can look around myself and see people proving Mrs. Susan Collins wrong, and that makes me happy.I guess she read somewhere that the U.S. economy had basically peaked. I vaguely remember reading something like that sometime in the late 1980s. It would have been just like my Dad to find an article like that in a magazine, rip it out, tell me to read it, and tell me not to let it happen to me.

The current prevailing theory is that as the rest of the world develops, our economy will grow as well because they’ll be better able to afford to buy our stuff. Hopefully by the time that happens, we’ll still know how to make something here.

The real threat to the American Dream right now is the sense of entitlement. When I look at the American Dream, I look at how my Dad lived when he was my age, and I have him beat hands-down. I have a house in the suburbs, and I own it outright. When Dad was 33, he lived in a slum. Well, not quite a slum. It was the former Toledo Motor Lodge, converted (badly) into apartments. The way Mom tells it, it was even worse than it sounds.

The problem is that we’ve been brainwashed not to compare our lives with where our parents were at our age. We’re supposed to have a better life than them right now. And if you’re under the age of 40 and your parents are white collar workers, that’s not a realistic expectation at all.

If my Dad were alive today, he would probably make 2-3 times what I make. Osteopathic radiologists with 30 years of experience make more money than systems administrators with 10 years of experience. What if I’d followed his footsteps and become an osteopathic radiologist like he was? He’d still make more than me, because radiologists with 30 years of experience make more money than radiologists with five years of experience. Who wouldn’t rather have the guy with 30 years’ experience reading their x-rays?

But that’s something my family has been dealing with for generations. Dr. Edward Andrew Farquhar started practicing medicine before the Civil War, and when you trace him to me, I’m one of only two generations who didn’t follow his footsteps. When it comes to the American Dream, it’s hard to compete with your father when your father was the town doctor. It isn’t all just handed to you.

But that’s a blessing in two regards. That means anyone who’s deserving of the title can be the next town doctor. That’s good for everyone, because unspeakable things happen when I have to look at something that’s bleeding a lot. If I were the town doctor, lots of people would probably bleed to death.

And any time someone says the American Dream is dead, I look at my neighborhood. It’s overrun with Bosnians. More than 50,000 Bosnian refugees ended up in St. Louis in the early 1990s.

I wish every city in the United States had 50,000 Bosnians move in, because they’re the best thing that’s happened to St. Louis in a very long time. They found jobs, worked hard, saved money, and bought run-down houses in declining neighborhoods. I can remember (barely) some of those neighborhoods, and they’re a better place now because of it. The neighborhoods not only look better now, but they’re safer.

Some of the children of those refugees are grown now, with jobs and families of their own, and increasingly they’re moving into the suburbs. In other cases, first-generation Bosnian immigrants are upgrading to houses in the suburbs.

It’s clear how they do it. Besides having a regular job, they always have something going on the side. Maybe more than one. They shop at thrift stores and garage sales, and they negotiate hard. They treat every dollar like it’s their last. And they’re always looking for an opportunity, or trying to make one.

They’ve tried to maintain their distinct culture, but what they may or may not realize is that they’re more American than their neighbors down the street who’ve been here for four generations.

I hope they’re still going at it when my son is old enough to pay attention. Because I intend take him out and find some Bosnians in action. And when I do, I’m going to point at them and tell my son to watch everything they do. Because for anyone who’s willing to do what the Bosnians do, the American Dream will always be alive.

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