Today I ran into yet another person who’s dissatisfied with where she’s at in life.

The disillusioned seem to make up about 80% or more of the people that I meet or have the opportunity to talk deeply with.

Some dissatisfaction can be a good thing… it motivates us to want and achieve more. That’s not the kind of dissatisfaction I’m referring to, however. I’m talking about a deep, core dissatisfaction, that goes something like this:

“What the fuck am I doing with my life?”

This seems to be much more people now than ever who are asking this.. Why? Why now?

The stale American Dream

Dreams and goals are great when you’re moving towards them. We had an American Dream that our parents and grandparents worked towards.  Prosperity. Abundance. Freedom. Then, in large measure, they got that.  While there are plenty of people who’ve been left out of this, there are also plenty of people who already achieved it… and are bored with it.

To understand this, imagine going for a gold medal in the Olympics. You work and you train for many years, then you get the gold.  Maybe you even do it a second or third time.  Imagine if it stopped there. Imagine if, after doing that, you had no new goals or challenges.  Instead, you just sat around, looking at your gold medal(s) and reminiscing about how great that was… constantly. Pretty quickly you’d become a bore. Pretty quickly, you’d probably take up a drinking, drugs, or gambling habit to “escape” the tedium.

Dreams aren’t so fun anymore once you achieve them.  It’s great to revel in accomplishments, for a while… but then it’s always time to move onto the next dream or goal.

We had an American Dream.  We accomplished it.  Then we sat around reveling in it for way too long.  It’s grown stale, and holds no excitement anymore.

The suburbs are stale

The suburbs are a shining example of the dream that became stale.  Before we had them, most people either lived in cramped city quarters, or in a rural agrarian setting.  The suburbs promised a perfect “happy medium” for masses of people.  Everyone got plenty of space, the two car garage, the pool, and the RV.  You could zip to work in your shiny new auto on wide-open freeways.

From the standpoint of someone living in the city who wanted more space, or someone who lived in the country who wanted more social and economic contact, the suburbs were a fantastic dream to be a part of building.

We plowed tremendous resources into building them. We built up a TV and movie culture about life in the suburbs (the Brady Bunch comes to mind!).

That lasted for a good 30 to 40 years, from the 1950’s to the 1990’s.  But then the dream got stale.

The suburbs were mostly built out. They were a “done deal.” We knew that we could accomplish it. There was no challenge left, no thrill, no excitement. What’s more, the younger generations wanted more.  They wanted new challenges and new horizons.

It’s not that the suburbs suddenly became bad.  They just didn’t hold any hope, promise, or challenge for the future.  The dream had moved on.

The dream and the economy

That left the economy in a mess.  At the bottom of it all, the economy depends on human needs and desires. Sure, it is possible to prop it up for a time with governmental intervention – but that never lasts.  The core is always the populace, and how they translate their needs and wants into economic activity like buying and selling.

It was clear that the old way of doing things was stagnating.  The masses didn’t need ever bigger houses and more cars.  The internet started to promise a “new way,” and a bit of a bubble got built up around that.

Yet once that first bubble collapsed, the government and banks went into a panic.  They decided that it was essential to prop up the dream all over again… so that we could get back to the “good old times”.

They lowered interest rates and promoted cheap and easy loans. People started buying houses, not because they really needed or wanted them, but because they were driven by greed.

It ended in a big ka-pow in 2008.

Then, we were back to where we started.

Let’s prop up a dead dream (again)!

A certain fiction theme goes like this: someone dies. The protagonist stands to loose a lot if people know that the person has died. So the protagonist pretends that the dead person is still alive. That is, until people catch on.

That’s exactly what the big players in our economy have attempted to do.  They like to pretend that the dream isn’t dead.  “No, in fact, it’s quite alive.  Can’t you see all this money we’re putting into small businesses, new housing starts, and making shiny new cars?!”

However, the populace ain’t buying it.  A lot of us smell a rat.  We know there’s something wrong, we just don’t know what.

And that’s what leads to this widespread, core dissatisfaction.  We want more, but we’re being told that we shouldn’t want more.  We’re told that “living the American Dream” should be all we need.

That’s bullshit.

Humans have always wanted more, and it’s a good thing

The whole reason that humans left the plains of Africa to travel across the world was because we wanted more.  The reason men stepped foot on the moon was because we wanted more.  The reason we have the internet is because we wanted more.

Wanting more is our heritage. I’m not just talking about more stuff (in fact, as far as stuff is concerned, less is often more). I’m talking about more out of life. More and better experiences. More satisfaction. More meaning. More challenge. More inspiration. More joy.

Unfortunately, because powers that be have propped up the old dream (you know, the one where you get a job-for-life and are happy-ever-after in the suburbs with the white picket fence), growing numbers of people are angst-ridden, depressed, and worse. They want to move on… but don’t see how they can.

“I’ve got kids to feed and bills to pay.” 

Instead of defining a new dream, most people stay stuck. They feel obligated to the old dream, even though it’s not of their making.  They feel beholden to something that previous generations created, and they have no new dream to replace it with.

If you want to know why the economy hasn’t gotten better, this is why.  Until we collectively realize that we need to move on and define a new and bigger and better dream, we’ll stay in a chronic sort of economic malaise. (either that, or we get embroiled in a war that captures people’s imagination and passion… but I think sending people into deep space would be far more interesting than just having another war).

We don’t have to destroy what came before. A lot of what came before is good.  Having a good living space, having freedom to travel around, and having enough food on the table… all those are great. We don’t have to give those up, and we shouldn’t give those up.

Instead, we should build on them. We should reconfigure them to our current liking.

Once we’ve done that, we should figure out: what’s the next challenge? What’s the new dream? Women on Mars? Exploring the deep seas? Deciphering the genome? Finding more joy and contentment? All of the above? We should pursue those dreams with courage and passion, just like our forebears did in building the original American Dream. Just like earlier humans did in setting out to explore the planet.

The day of reckoning

Someday soon, masses of people in Western countries are going to wake up and realize that the dream is dead (maybe that’s what the Mayan prophecy of 2012 was all about?)  It’s inevitable.

Then the only question is whether they’ll realize what the trouble is, finding a positive way of engaging with a new dream…. or instead, finding a scapegoat to blame their woe upon, and starting down a path of destruction.  We’ve been down the latter road at least once, and it wasn’t pretty.

I do hope that instead, we’ll find the will to re-imagine the American Dream into something newer and better, something more appropriate for our time, and something that we can all aspire to.