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American Dreamers

© Ben Sargent

The American dream is that anyone can become successful if they try, that you can leave your children with a better life than the one you have, that hard work is rewarded. It is what made our country great — the land of opportunity.

But now you are just supposed to work hard for your corporate masters. For what? So they can cut your pay or your job, while giving themselves obscene bonuses? So you can buy a house that will be worth less money than you paid for it? So you can build a nest egg for your retirement that will go up in smoke when the company you worked for goes bankrupt or the stock market tanks? So your life crumbles around you if you become seriously ill or disabled?

People complain about the young not working hard enough. Well, why the hell should they work hard? Talk about disincentives!

The American Dream has become a nightmare for most Americans. And the pundits and politicians play the blame game — it is all the fault of immigrants, or Muslims, or gays. They think they can give you a scapegoat so you don’t look too closely at the real problems.



  1. BigDaddyCool wrote:

    It’s like what I told our social worker not too long ago…we are teaching the wrong lessons.

    My late father-in-law’s Health Care plan included visits from a social worker to see how he was doing. Her views are pretty typical when it comes to “Conservative” politics, or she is just “old-school” and will not accept that things have changed since she was looking for a job. (This is the one who kept telling me that I had to ‘pound the pavement’ if I wanted a job and that I had to introduce myself to people to get anywhere. Never mind the fact that we live an hour away from the nearest city in a rural area 3,000 feet on a mountain.)

    ANyway she was making the comment that it seemed like people just didn’t want to put in the hard work anymore and that they expected something without having earned it. My response was: “Well that’s because they have been taught that hard work is no longer valued in this country. With all of the downsizing and lay-offs and companies not returning the loyalty that they demand they have learned that hard work will get you nowhere. They have learned that if they go to work every day and work hard that they will not be rewarded in the end – they will get screwed over and told that its what they deserved. If people don’t work hard anymore its because they are being taught that there is no value in hard work.”

    She had no answer for that one – funny that.

    Monday, December 12, 2011 at 12:50 pm | Permalink
  2. Iron Knee wrote:

    BDC — totally agree.

    Monday, December 12, 2011 at 3:16 pm | Permalink
  3. PatriotSGT wrote:

    I have to partially disagee. Hard work within corporate America may go unrewarded as you suggest. I can’t disprove that. I stopped working in Corp America over 20 years ago, but did fine and was rewarded well, but i can’t comment to current corporate culture.
    I can attest to the “do-it-yourself” variety of hard work paying off. My wife has been self employed for the last 15 years and her reward is limited only by the amount of hard work and ambition she puts into it. Likewise for myself. I have a small business on the side from my full time work and military service and it use to be limited only by hard work and ambition. That is until idiots started taking loans they had no intention of repaying or didn’t care how to manage and bigger idiots started giving them said loans whom we later bailed out. Then the government stepped in and took over and now I cannot get any additional capital to further my ambition until the government sets the regulation back to where it was 5 years ago concerning how loans are calculated.
    Now I will be the first to tell you I’m not quite sure which side is more responsible for the current lack of liquidity in the credit markets, the Gubmint or the lenders, but none the less it is the only thing currently in my way. I refuse to go the venture capital way, since I’m sure the rates and terms are out of this world.
    Any ideas on reasonable capital would be appreciated.

    Monday, December 12, 2011 at 3:35 pm | Permalink
  4. ebdoug wrote:

    Thomas Mellon wrote a book called “T Mellon and his Times” for his family. It sat on my shelf for thirty years before I read it. He states exactly what you all are talking about: the pride of the self employed is lost once you enter a factory. In his day the blacksmith had pride in his business. Once factories were opened the pride was lost. I also live one hour from the nearest city. Trained as a tax preparer by H&R Block, I left them to work up on my mountain doing taxes. I netted $6000 a year doing 140 tax returns rather than $4000 a year doing 500 tax returns. I had to cut back from 180 returns because I just couldn’t do it. My clients were very loyal. Again the government regulations helped me end my career last year. Mostly curbs on the unethical preparers who prey on their clients.

    Monday, December 12, 2011 at 4:02 pm | Permalink
  5. Iron Knee wrote:

    PatriotSgt, most of the changes I’m talking about happened in the last 15 years. But I want to make another point — it matters more the perception of whether hard work pays off than the reality. I think currently it is the combination of the two. First the perception — the news is full of reports of people losing their life savings, retirement funds, homes, etc. and also of undeserving bankers receiving obscene bonuses they don’t deserve and hardly worked for. And the reality is that — speaking as someone who starts businesses for a living — it is harder to do that now than it was 20 years ago. Even you admit that you are unable to grow your company because of lack of capital.

    Finally, to answer to your last question — the best source of capital is always “friends and family” (normally called “angel investors”). I’ve funded many a company that way. And the rates and terms of venture capital are not as bad as you suggest; the main problem with venture capital is that you have to deal with venture capitalists, who can often be a pain in the ass. But there are good ones out there too.

    Monday, December 12, 2011 at 4:29 pm | Permalink
  6. Jeff wrote:

    “People complain about the young not working hard enough.”

    I’ve heard this so many times, and it always angers me. Firstly, because it’s true of so many young people I know. I know people my age that have gone through college, graduated, and work at book stores or shopping malls. There’s no incentive to get into a career with many my age because we were never taught that you have to start planning for the future now, and we were never given any direction on what to do with our money.

    The second reason this phrase bothers me is that it’s not true of everyone my age. I will use myself as an example. I graduated college in 2009, on time, and with absolutely no idea where I would end up. I have since held three jobs, and am starting a new one next week. The thing is, I have set a goal for myself and, as of next Monday, I will have reached it. I will be making good money at a job I want and love, and will be happy with that. I won’t be rich, I will barely be able to pay bills and save anything, but I will be where I want to be. That kind of drive is rare in my generation, unfortunately. I had to work very hard to get there so quickly, but I did it. And that is my American Dream.

    My concern now is planning for the future. How do I start long-term investment? How do I start planning for retirement (I know it’s a long way off, but I also know it’s best to start as early as possible).

    The failing of the new generation is that there is no incentive to seek guidance and little thought of how important it is. The failing is that the promise of a better future has been taken from so many, and they don’t even know it yet, if they ever will. From reading things here and on other sites, and from my own thoughts, I know that my generation is going to have a lot of suffering ahead of it. Hopefully, I’ll be able to weather that, and come out fine on the other side. I know many who won’t.

    Sorry if this is long, but I feel that the premise of this post is that the younger generation and our society in general doesn’t have a clue, doesn’t know they’ve been fooled, doesn’t know that they are going to lose out in the end, and doesn’t know how to change that. Well, I’m part of that generation and society, and I count myself as one who doesn’t fit that mold.

    Monday, December 12, 2011 at 5:02 pm | Permalink
  7. PatriotSGT wrote:

    Thanks for the tip IK.
    Jeff- I know many people from your generation, I work with them and train them, have family who are them and soon my sons will be them (1 entering college next fall). You are absolutely right that not all “don’t work hard enough”. quite on the contrary many work very hard. I have 2 nephews who graduated college in the last 5 years and both are well employed. They listened to their father and uncle and mother and so on and earned degrees that lead to a job. Both were recruited out of college, one has changed jobs, but still in the same field.
    2 things I see is the perception that you have to earn 6 plus figures upon graduation and thats just plain out false. Most people take quite a while to reach that level. Your right about saving, start sooner, but start small. Even if it’s $25 a month, start now. Skip a few beers and stash the money in a reputable mutual fund. There’s no get rich rise to the top overnight reality, its hard work over a lifetime. Let us know how you did when your 50. 🙂

    Monday, December 12, 2011 at 5:27 pm | Permalink
  8. Iron Knee wrote:

    Jeff, I agree with you (and admire you) as well. Of course not every young person fits the mold. And some of us older people (e.g., PatriotSgt and myself) don’t fit that mold either.

    I also want to say that just because the next generation may not be as well off financially as previous generations doesn’t mean they have “a lot of suffering ahead”. As the old saying goes, money doesn’t buy happiness. I’ve had times when I was dirt broke and times when I was well off financially, and I’ve managed to be relatively happy most of the time.

    I get the feeling that no matter what the world throws at you, you will come out fine on the other side.

    Monday, December 12, 2011 at 9:49 pm | Permalink
  9. TENTHIRTYTWO wrote:

    I actually don’t get the “hard work is rewarded” statements, really at all. Perhaps looking at a very tiny slice of the population.

    I do tech work, and I work hard. However, I’ve also done manual labor. I’ve never once felt like I worked as hard as I did when doing manual labor. I had nights after 8 hour workdays where I came home flat out exhausted…literally ate food and passed out for 14 hours. However, I made significantly less money doing manual labor.

    You could argue that the hard work I put in at college allowed me to benefit today, but I really didn’t work too hard at college. I was blessed with a pretty high degree of intelligence (as well as a family that could pay my way). I didn’t work to gain any of those things. It was just the roll of the dice.

    And even at that, every employer I’ve had has taken a chance on me because I was underqualified for the position. Again, this had nothing to do with hard work.

    These things get especially blurry when we start looking at civil servants vs the finance industry. Who works harder: a firefighter or a hedge fund manager? A CEO of a financial firm or a police officer? I’ve made similar arguments before, and the response I hear most often (which is bizarre) is stress. That being responsible for millions of dollars is so stressful that they deserve the astronomical reward. To those people I say, please take some time to charge into a burning building which is collapsing around you. Pull over someone for speeding and have them start firing at you. Choose a job so dangerous that you must wear bulletproof or fireproof armor every day. Then come back and talk to me about stress. In fact, I find it really surprising that a soldier is talking about how hard work pays off.

    So I just don’t understand the hard work pays off arguments. I really feel like those people who make it are imagining America rather than looking at the actual situation. A person can work hard their whole life as a welder or construction worker, and they will never come remotely close to what some people in the finance industry make in one year. Do you really feel like the people in finance are working that hard?

    My personal opinion is that the power brokers are dead set on convincing everyone that with a little hard work and ingenuity, you too can be a multi-millionaire, while they are designing a system which richly rewards the finance industry which contributes nothing to society. They say, look at all those who made it on their own: Gates, Jobs, etc. It could be you! Never mind the fact that they (and everybody else) didn’t do it on their own. Nevermind the fact that the thing that separates most people from the Gates’ and the Jobs’ isn’t hard work. Nevermind the fact that the majority of small businesses fail, and the reason they fail is not universally because the owners were lazy. They’ll just keep dangling the carrot while siphoning exponentially more dollars out of the economy year after year.

    Wednesday, December 14, 2011 at 8:05 am | Permalink
  10. PatriotSGT wrote:

    Now i understand you 1032- On the hard work. Yea I’ve scrubbed floors, washed toilets, dug holes, served 100’s of people on tired aching feet. I’ve strapped on 60 lbs of body armor, thrown a 75lb ruck sack on my back, picked up my weapon and 20lbs of ammunition and marched in 120 degrees as well.
    Why I say hard work pays off is I was always playing with someone elses money, someone elses bet. Just like the employers who gave you a chance. You could have turned out to be a bad dude and got them sued and they lost everything including the others that worked there. They took a risk, they hired you. You had no risk in the business.
    Now I’ve built a business, my risk, my capital and alot of my own hard work and yes even blood. I bought houses with down payments that My wife and I saved. I rehabed them with my own sweat and my own money. I am 100% at risk. I rent to people who are not at risk for loosing their own money. If they don’t pay me, who looses? If they decide to stiff me out of 2-3 months rent (i don’t let that happen any more) who gets stuck paying? Who’s at risk?
    If you don’t risk anything, then you have nothing to loose. All small business owners and Corporations are at risk. The investors and owners can all loose.
    So the actuality is not I guess the hard work, although many ventures require it, but how much you have at risk. Everything has stress and not all is bad, but if you have vision, willingness to take a chance, put yourself and your family at risk, then you can get rewarded.
    If you’d rather not and just play it safe then thats your choice, but don’t complain about those that do.

    Wednesday, December 14, 2011 at 11:58 am | Permalink
  11. TENTHIRTYTWO wrote:

    Because nothing says playing it safe like signing up to be shot at in a war zone? I think the risk argument is going to be approximately as silly as the stress argument.

    I would also mention that privatized profits and socialized losses do not scream “risk” to me…

    Wednesday, December 14, 2011 at 1:05 pm | Permalink
  12. PatriotSGT wrote:

    Well in that case 1032, I suggest you trade checks with the janitor who cleans your office. He certainly works physically harder then you and by your narrow definition of “hard work” should make more then you. I’m sure he’d appreciate the Christmas Bonus. 🙂

    Just cash out your retirement, all your savings, mortgage out your assets and bet it all on starting a new business. Then report back on your stress level and how much hard work your doing.

    Wednesday, December 14, 2011 at 1:32 pm | Permalink
  13. TENTHIRTYTWO wrote:

    I find it funny that you agree with my premise (“So the actuality is not I guess the hard work, although many ventures require it, but how much you have at risk.”), and then immediately flip and try to complain that my definition of hard work was too narrow. Must have caught a bad case of the Romneys.

    Maybe instead, I could cash out all my savings, mortgage all my assets, and use the money to buy lottery tickets. If I won and became rich, would that make me a hard worker, too?

    In case the point was lost on you, I’m not saying that people who do what you are talking about aren’t hard workers. I’m saying the people who do what you are talking about and lose everything aren’t lazy people. There are millions more facets to that than just “hard work.” But damn if it doesn’t make a good talking point when you are trying to sell tax cuts for rich people to the dirt poor.

    Wednesday, December 14, 2011 at 1:46 pm | Permalink
  14. Iron Knee wrote:

    I think you two are both missing the point. Capitalism does not and has never rewarded hard work, nor does it reward taking risks (by definition, since if you are taking a risk, you are — by definition — putting yourself into a position where you are more likely to fail).

    The point of capitalism is to create an economic version of natural selection. Just like real natural selection, where predators thinning the herd keep the species healthy and adaptable. (It is ironic that many of the same conservatives who refuse to believe in evolution of species fervently believe in capitalism).

    The important concept is not that hard work is always rewarded — it is not. What is important is that everyone has an equal shot at success. Unfortunately, we have lost that.

    Wednesday, December 14, 2011 at 2:19 pm | Permalink
  15. PatriotSGT wrote:

    1032- I agree completely with your last statement and never disputed it. What you originally stated was that people who deal in money are overpaid vs hard working laborers. What I said was people who take risks can get rewards and implied they shouldn’t be categorized as evil rich people. They worked just as hard, which you seem to agree with. So where’s the beef. Why are successful people demonized? You can try the lottery route, but I’d warn you it’s has pretty low probability for success. Try opening your own business. Comparing hard working business makers to lottery winners is kind of lame.
    And IK- Yes, Capitalism should create narual selection. Good business models with Hard work can get rewarded. You’ve been rewarded I suppose somewhere down the line for your hard work. If the consumer sees a value in your service they pay, you earn a share and create wealth, whether it’s $5 or $5 million. Wall street has customers who buy products if those consumers don’t see a value in it they won’t buy and wall street goes broke. Where we went wrong is not letting that process play out. We started picking winners and losers with our tax dollars to the benefit of politicians. Still no real prosecutions have taken place and yet political hands are still outstretched for money from those same sources to help pick more winners and continue the cycle.

    I agree it is harder to get that shot at success then it was a few years ago, but with ingenuity and persistence you still can reap what you sow. How much effort do you want to put into it, thats the question.

    Wednesday, December 14, 2011 at 4:46 pm | Permalink
  16. TENTHIRTYTWO wrote:

    In fact, I never once said they were overpaid…though I think they are, that has nothing to do with this discussion. What I stated was, they make far more money than plenty of people who, it would seem, in every rational way work “harder.” You then tried to shift it to “risk,” which is equally absurd since the police officer, firefighter, and soldier are risking their LIFE at work daily. So why aren’t they the rich people?

    You are trying to circle back around to them being hard workers, and being successful. You left out “job creator,” though. To be frank, I don’t give a damn about opening my own business. My job is no cakewalk, and I have enormous responsibilities. With a few taps on a keyboard I could cost millions of people a lot of money, not the least of which would be my own family as I was escorted out the door. If I were demonizing successful people, I’d be demonizing myself.

    But please, continue whining about how mistreated the only successful people who run their own business are. God knows the rest of us are just drooling at our own easy jobs, being handed money for doing nothing. No risk involved at all…sometimes we get our pets to come in so we can take a few days off.

    Absolute nonsense.

    Wednesday, December 14, 2011 at 5:31 pm | Permalink