Not long ago a handful of middle-level executives, talking informally around a luncheon table in Manhattan, found themselves all agreeing with one of their number who said, "I think children born fifty years ago could look forward to a better future than my children can." On the face of it, that's a pretty shocking observation, for a basic ingredient of the American dream is that the members of each succeeding generation shall be further advanced than their parents in the pursuit of happiness.
These executives were themselves middle class, and probably understood that not every son in Scarsdale, Scottsdale, or Grosse Pointe should be able to do better and live better than his father. When taking off from a fairly high starting point, some will fall instead of rise. But the executives meant more than incomes or titles; they were also talking about the kind of world, the kind of America, their sons and daughters would inhabit. They were not speaking in the put-down vocabulary of our times in which a phrase like "the American dream" can be used only in irony, but from the despair about these times felt by those who are not themselves cynical.
Yet the despair seems, at the least, to be premature. A persuasive case can be made that if the American dream is dead, or dormant, it is because the dream of the fathers has been mostly realized, while the dream of the sons has not yet been successfully formulated. Like all dreams, the American dream has never been easy to describe in the cold light of day, in its traditional form, it included both our purpose as a nation, embodied in such propositions as "liberty and justice for all", as well as the personal goals that echo in the familiar phrase, the land of promise. [...]
But dreams achieved become mundane. The achievements bring new problems. As the preceding article points out, justice more evenly shared has been accompanied by higher crime rates. The great improvements in material well-being often do not satisfy. To have all the dreams that money can buy seems not enough; in the words of Peggy Lee's song: "Is That All There Is?"
Not many Americans are so naive as to think that money automatically brings happiness. They are not experiencing the hedonist's hangover. What seems to be bothering them are some of the practical trade-offs that mass affluence has required. People feel that the vast and impersonal technology that brings them their comforts and satisfies their needs has somehow diminished them as individuals. Most Americans are "better off" than they once were, but are less singular for being so, and feel less individually attended to. They take the wonders of their possessions for granted, and the failures (so different from the TV commercial's glamorous promise) resignedly.
They can be well fed, well clothed, and well sheltered, but live in a pattern indistinguishable from their neighbours: they crowd the same highways, watch the same television shows, queue up at the same supermarket checkout counters. They can afford to travel more and farther because of economies of scale; they fly in jumbo jets to places where hospitality is calibrated, rooms are standardized, and service is chain-management functional. "Getting away from everybody" gets harder and harder as more and more people can afford to try.
The newest dent in the American dream of affluence comes from the discovery that our resources (and the world's) are more finite than we thought. This challenges that delicious American freedom, the right to be prodigal and uncaring - that open, generous, spontaneous attitude sometimes so envied, sometimes so deplored, by more parsimonious and tradition-confined foreigners. Americans have always believed that "there's plenty more where that came from"; you don't divide the wealth, you multiply it. And thus every man's ambitions - to make, to sell, to buy - somehow can be felt to serve the common good.
If rapid growth is no longer the easy answer to our problems, the alternatives to it are difficult for a nation with an economy so attuned to growth. Adding this to so many other matters they worry about, many Americans have lost confidence in what they once regarded as their natural ally, the future.