In an opinion piece I read in the Boston Globe, Neal Gabler suggested that the idea of the American Dream has changed dramatically in recent years.
As devised in the late nineteenth century, the American Dream was about opportunity. The idea, writes Gabler, “was that anyone in this pragmatic, un-class-conscious society of ours could by dint of hard work, rise to the level of his aspiration.”
Opportunity is very different than entitlement.
As opposed to what is deserved, opportunity is the promise of a chance to have your choices, work, character and resolve result in due reward. And in most cases, that due reward is not fame or fortune but the ability to earn a living, be sheltered, and provide for the needs of your family.
But over the last fifty or so years, the American Dream has changed.
The dream is “no longer about seizing opportunity but about realizing perfection… The career has to be perfect, the wife has to be perfect, the children have to be perfect, the home has to be perfect, the car has to be perfect, the social circle has to be perfect.”
And we will seemingly do whatever it takes to attain this perfection, from “plastic surgery to gated communities of McMansions to the professionalization of our children’s activities like soccer and baseball to pricey preschools that prepare 4-year-olds for Harvard.”
At least that’s how we feel. Because inherent within the new American Dream is a new competition from those who are also striving for perfection and may have already attained it.
People “whose wives will always be beautifully coiffed and dressed or whose husbands will be power brokers, whose children will score 2,400 on their SATs and who will be playing competitive-level tennis, whose careers will be skyrocketing, whose fortunes will be growing.”
So if you are not in on the perfection, you are not only left behind but you are second rate. So, Gabler concludes, welcome to the new American Dream.
Not where every little girl can have the opportunity to get an education and strive to reach her full potential, limited only by her hard work, persistence and dedication.
No, today it is the birthright of every girl “to be a rich, beautiful, brilliant, powerful, Ivy League-educated Mistress of the Universe who will live not just the good life but the perfect one.”
I think Gabler is on to something. Only he didn’t go far enough.
If the original American Dream was opportunity (the rags-to-riches Horatio Alger story) that then morphed into perfection, it has now become entitlement.
Entitlement is beyond perfection.
Yes, perfection is our goal, but instead of the dream being striving for perfection – and achieving it – the newest American Dream seems to be the demand for it to come our way as an inalienable right. Regardless of whether we’ve earned it, it should be provided.
It is our due.
It would be difficult to eavesdrop on our culture and not sense this shift – how the great American Dream has turned into the great American Right: “I am entitled to the perfect car, house, spouse, child and job.”
So we do not expect a chance at a job but the guarantee of one.
And not just any job, but the dream job that gives us everything we desire through fulfillment, meaning and compensation.
James Emery White
Neal Gabler, “The new American Dream,” Boston Globe, March 31, 2011, read online.
Excerpt from James Emery White, The Church in an Age of Crisis: 25 New Realities Facing Christianity (Baker Books). Available on Amazon.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.