There’s a lot of polemical talk surrounding the American Dream these days. For many, the belief that a good job is waiting if you are willing to work hard has vanished along with hopes for economic mobility in the future. So has the dream really become a nightmare?
For millions of Americans, the dire talk of an economy in decline and fear of unemployed rings hollow. That’s because skilled workers that meet the needs of employers have never been in higher demand. However, the one major difference between these fortunate ones and those who feel shut out from the modern economy is often the lack of a college degree.
Does this mean that the American Dream only exists for those who are able to finish higher education? The story is not that simple.
The American economy has undergone a massive transformation in the last half-century. Labor intensive manufacturing sectors have faced steep competition from foreign firms and moved many jobs offshore for a variety of reasons. Additionally, technological progress has allowed employers to mechanize certain functions in the production cycle, removing the need to hire as many humans to accomplish the work.
So, based on this picture, it would seem that the last fifty years have been nothing but industrial decline and lost jobs. In fact, the US economy has sustained growth through increased employment in service sectors as well as the creation of entirely new industries as a result of technological innovation. These new sources of jobs do in many cases require or favor candidates with college degrees, further exacerbating the lack of demand for unskilled workers.
As an example, higher education has become a much larger employer, in many cases driven by the number of degree seekers. The development of for profit institutions and influx of foreign students has hastened the need for more educators.
Other sectors of the economy that require workers to obtain a college or graduate degree and have experienced growth in recent years include healthcare, financial services, and IT, among others. While these jobs often pay well, they do not provide the sheer number of open positions that activities such as auto-manufacturing or coal mining used to provide.
What has happened to the workers who lost a job that no longer exists? They have had to either develop new skills that fit the needs of employers who are hiring or seek out lower paying sources of income. For the unfortunate ones who find themselves sliding down the economic ladder, it can indeed seem like the American Dream, as promised when they were growing up, has died.
In many cases, secondary education is the ticket to a new job but it need not be the only route to prosperity in the new economy. Certain skilled professions that do not require a college degree have remained in high demand and are still able to provide a stable income. Plumbers and electricians frequently make high five-figure or low six salaries while working on their own schedules. Despite the opportunities these fields offer, many prospective candidates do not consider these jobs because of a perceived stigma against the work.
In addition to highly skilled positions, new entrants into the economy have created a number of jobs that can be done without specialized education. While the United States Postal Service has been laying off staff over the last few decades, Fedex and UPS have only increased employment. There may be less land lines but mobile phones have caused the development of a new infrastructure that needs to be maintained and updated. Coal mining may be a shrinking industry but environmental services providers are increasingly used to repair the damage these extractive industries leave behind in depressed former mining towns as well as nationally.
Finally, there have never been more ways to create your own job. What defines the American dream more than being your own boss? Uber has allowed anyone with a car to turn it into a source of income. This may be the most famous, but today there are literally hundreds of online sites offering sources of employment that can be done by almost anyone at their own convenience. These can provide a primary income or supplement for those who are currently underemployed or paid relative to their last position.
So, what is the clearest path to reclaiming the American Dream for those workers who find themselves unemployed or undervalued? Developing a new skill is always the first step. This may or may not come from pursuing a college degree.
While there have never been more opportunities to obtain a degree on your own terms, it is not necessary to find a new job. Vocational programs that teach a specific skill are available in fields from pipe fitting to computer programming. The key is finding and developing proficiency in something that is in high demand and will therefore increase the odds of finding a job upon completion. Some programs will even guarantee employment upon completion or employers will fund the cost of obtaining certification.
Junior colleges and two year programs can also be a great way to obtain skills or specialization without incurring the cost and spending the time it can take to get a Bachelors Degree. These programs can be particularly useful for those interested in fields such as health services or accounting that require completing a specific curriculum but don’t take four years to do it.
Another possible solution for workers who lack a college degree and are unable to pursue further education or develop new skills is to look for the same source of employment somewhere else in the country. If the American Dream is not all it was cracked up to be where you live doesn’t mean it isn’t alive and well in another city, county or state.
Appalachia shed coal jobs for decades while Western states such as Wyoming and North Dakota hired thousands. The number of skilled machinists needed in the Mid-West has declined along with manufacturing but new plants in the South servicing the auto as well as aerospace industries has increased demand in this region.
GDP and labor statistics are commonly reported on a national level but these numbers hide wide variations between states. If a worker is geographically mobile, they can reclaim economic mobility by moving to a state that is experiencing higher growth.
The American Dream may not be dead but the path to get there has certainly changed. In many cases, a willingness to work hard may no longer be enough to guarantee a comfortable salary to carry you into retirement and a solid pension once you get there.
The changes experienced over the last half century have caused massive dislocation for those workers who do not possess a college degree. The uncertainty and anxiety this has caused among sections of the population has done much to undermine the collective belief in the American Dream.
Contrary to how it may feel at times, the dream is alive and well. Hard work can still lead to increased economic security as well as opportunities for future generations but it is increasingly contingent upon the development and application of specialized skill sets. Additionally, workers who find themselves underemployed in their current position can utilize new tools to raise their income or take advantage of the lack of barriers between states to find work elsewhere.
This is not to say it will be easy, but then again, was it ever? Rather than think of the American Dream as something that is lost, instead accept that it has simply evolved and put effort into developing the skills these changes demand.