Remember how it felt when you graduated college?
Perhaps you’re like me, and you grew up learning that a college degree was the key to a successful future. You knew you didn’t want to spend the rest of your life flipping burgers like you did every summer. So you did it: you graduated college, and you proudly walked across the auditorium stage with a big grin. As you shook the dean’s hand, all that was left to do was ask, “What’s next?”
Back then, a loaded question like that was easy to answer: entry level job in a chosen career, graduate school—the options were endless. It was a question that was exciting to answer because no matter what route you chose, the degree all but guaranteed you’d start higher on the ladder than you would have if you’d only finished high school like your older relatives. You could see and feel what had been promised if you applied yourself and got a degree: the American Dream was real, and you were ready to stake your claim.
It felt good to look back on the previous four years of balancing school and work, knowing now that it was all worth it. Soon, you’d be settling into your career, making a comfortable living, buying a house, and starting a family. Sure, there’d be bills to pay, but you’d rest easy at night knowing that you’d continue to work your way up to better paying jobs in your field, and that you’d comfortably pay back your student loans and meet your mortgage payments.
Eventually, the loans would become a distant memory, and you’d be saving your money for your kids’ future. They would share their goals of having a career and starting a family, and you’d be happy to do what you could to help them realize their version of the American Dream. You’d even pay off your house one day and still have enough money left to set aside for your retirement, ensuring you wouldn’t have to work the rest of your life.
In that life, “fair” was getting out what you put in, so you worked hard and were compensated appropriately. And you knew that if you ever found yourself being taken advantage of, your college degree was always in your pocket and able to open another door if need be. In that life, there were safeguards put in place to make sure that the greediest among us weren’t able to keep you under their thumbs. In that life, we celebrated on graduation day because it represented a gateway to opportunity for everyone who earned the right to walk through it.
But in this life, the concept of “fair vs. unfair” has disintegrated into an accusation of laziness by the advantaged toward the disadvantaged. In this life, greed has infiltrated every nook and cranny of our society to the point where we don’t know who to trust anymore. And in this life, insurmountable student debt and the lack of real opportunities to reach our potential have drained graduation day of its optimism and replaced it with the burden of concern. Soon, the event might be more appropriately symbolized by handcuffs than a handshake.
Perhaps there is no alternate reality to this life; an existence where everyone truly has the opportunity to realize their full potential, be successful, and find happiness. Perhaps the American Dream has always been an unattainable illusion created by the powers that be.
But if it is an illusion, the false hope it’s meant to sustain is quickly fading. While people will recognize the illusion for what it is, they’ll remember something important: it sure sounded pretty nice. And maybe then, with nothing left to lose, we’ll all stand together, ask “what’s next?” and do what it takes to make that life a reality.
Follow Utne Reader Editor in Chief Christian Williams on Twitter: @cwwilliams