A long term perspective on the turmoil and change we see around us – The best primer I’ve seen.

The two best articles I’ve read that explain the massive shifts we are seeing in the economy were from Walter Russell Mead back in June 2011. Those articles put much in perspective and give a hint at a way forward. They were foundational to me starting to focus on the radical change taking place all around us.

The Death of the American Dream I compares the painful transition away from family farms to a suburban home funded with a cheap mortgage and paid by working a life-time job. We are now transitioning away from the model that has been in place since everyone reading this was a child. It will be painful, just as the disappearance of the family farm was painful.

From the 1770s through 1930s, the American dream was a family farm. Mr. Mead’s explanation:

From the Revolution (caused in part by George III’s attempt to stop the colonists from opening the land beyond the Appalachians to settlement) through the Great Depression one of the federal government’s main concerns was to make life easier for family farms. American governments worked to make land and loans cheap. Politicians also promoted the construction of railroads that allowed inland farms to ship their products to distant markets and then worked to regulate railroad rates so that farmers could make a living.

Many factors ended that dream. Mr. Mead describes the causes in depth.

Since WWII ended, the American dream has been owning your own home. Here’s the description:

Then came the Dream 2.0: home ownership in the suburbs accompanied by a consumer lifestyle based on credit card debt and the installment plan, anchored by a white or blue collar ‘good’ job. Once again federal policy aimed to make the American dream open to any white male: jobs were to be plentiful and mortgages cheap. Over time, we’ve extended the concept: you don’t have to be white or male to qualify for a good job but American social policy as a whole is recognizably an adaptation of our family farming heritage to the age of manufacturing.

For a wide variety of reasons, the Great Recession has shown that dream is winding down. Again, Mr. Mead goes into perceptive detail.

Mr. Mead assigns blame to everyone. Yet everyone is in part innocent.

The point however, is that the rules have changed. That American Dream of

  • a single family house, with
  • a long-term cheap mortgage, and
  • life-time tenure in
  • a stable, decent paying job

is coming to an end.

The Death of the American Dream II dives deeper into a comparison of the togetherness of the family farm and the compartmentalized life in suburbia. On the farm, everyone pitches in around the house and fields. In suburbia, Mom cooks, Dad works somewhere in an office, and kids learn at school and play at home.

Back on the farm

… everything had all been mixed together. The family was a production unit as well as (at its best) a unit of affection and love. Almost as soon as they could walk, very young children participated in the work of the farm. Mom and Dad were in an economic partnership as well as in a romantic relationship. Mom might do more of the cooking and Dad more of the heavy outdoor work, but their responsibilities overlapped and complemented each other.

In suburbia, everything is compartmentalized:

The Suburban Dream family separated work and family life in a way that was largely new in world history. Dad worked miles away in the office or the factory. Well into the 1970s the goal was often for Mom not to work at all; if she did, her work also took her away from the house. The kids left home for school, and their educational experience was almost entirely segregated from work of any kind.

That was a massive change.

The process which transformed the family farm into the box in the burbs involved deep changes in the way Americans lived and loved. 

One possible way forward is to a variation of the entrepreneurial family working out of the house with the entire family gather ‘round, each pulling their share of the load. Consider this:

One suspects we may see a return to multigenerational, multiuse middle class houses in the American future. … Mom and Dad may telecommute as independent subcontractors. Dick and Jane will help Mom and Dad with the family business from the time they are able to refill the printer tray. This isn’t some form of Dickensian exploitation; Dick and Jane are pulling their weight in the family and learning how the world works. Grandma and Grandpa may also help out, and contribute their bit to the family expenses — and to child care.

That would be something like a family farm but not located on the farm.

Whatever the new American Dream looks like, and we will develop one and it will work, there will be a new dream.

The transition is painful and will continue to be painful.

But there will be a new, beautiful American Dream. Version 3.0.

I don’t do justice to Mr. Mead’s articles by summarizing them and quoting a few paragraphs. If you are trying to get your brain around the changes taking place, please read both articles. I hope they will open your mind half as much as they opened mine.

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