Reimagining the American Dream

What the good life really means and why we can still grab it

American Dream 2

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This article is part of a package on the American Dream. For more, read A New National Narrative, Dreaming Across Class Lines, Tear Down the White Picket Fence, and The Pursuit of Square Footage.

Since the 1950s, what we’ve considered the American experience—be it sock hopping, suburban living, or SUV buying—has been largely dictated by the professional middle class. In her 1989 social critique Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class, Barbara Ehrenreich defined this mainstream population in terms of education, occupation, lifestyle, and tastes, but also in terms of income. “Middle-class couples,” she wrote, “earn enough for home ownership in a neighborhood inhabited by other members of their class; college educations for the children; and such enriching experiences as vacation trips, psychotherapy, fitness training, summer camp, and the consumption of ‘culture’ in various forms.”

This thriving middle class didn’t develop by accident. By the 1950s, a combination of social programs including Social Security, unemployment insurance, the GI Bill, and federal housing loans helped middle-class salaries stretch. Employers supplied health insurance and pensions. A surge in suburban building made housing widely accessible. You no longer had to be a doctor or a businessman to afford a two-story colonial with a dishwasher and a color TV. For a white male supporting a family—the typical middle-class profile at the time—it was possible to work in an array of professions and count on being fairly comfortable.

When we read about the middle-class squeeze, we tend to think blue collar—the machinist who used to make $25 an hour now making $15, the vocationally trained worker whose job just got cut. But what about the social worker who makes $30,000 a year, the environmental scientist who makes $40,000, the college professor who makes $50,000? The rules of the game have changed. The educated professional middle-class experience no longer guarantees two cars in every driveway, or even the driveway itself.

 

This is an excerpt by journalist Nan Mooney, the award-winning author of I Can’t Believe She Did That: Why Women Betray Other Women at Work and My Racing Heart: The Passionate World of Thoroughbreds and the Track. She lives in Seattle. This essay is excerpted from her book (Not) Keeping Up with Our Parents: The Decline of the Professional Middle Class. Copyright © 2008 by Nan Mooney. Reprinted by permission of Beacon Press; www.beacon.org.

A more complete version of the article is available in the print edition of Utne Reader’s May-June issue.