i’ve been noodling a bit on this since i read anastasia goodstein’s post on teenagers and the american dream, on her ypulse blog. so, here’s that to begin with:
I always thought of that the American Dream went something like this. Anyone in this country, regardless of who they are (race, class, gender, etc.), could achieve success (usually financial) in the United States if they worked hard enough. The collective knowledge of Wikipedia defines the American Dream as:
Generally refer[ing] to the idea that one’s prosperity depends upon one’s own abilities and hard work, not on a rigid class structure. For some, it is the opportunity to achieve more prosperity than they could in their countries of origin; for others, it is the opportunity for their children to grow up with an education and career opportunities; for still others, it is the opportunity to be an individual without the constraints imposed by class, caste, race, gender or ethnicity. It sometimes includes the idea of owning a home.
According to a recent Harris Poll, here’s how teenagers described the American Dream:
“Simply being happy, no matter what I do” — 47 percent
“Having a house, cars and a good job” — 38 percent
“Being able to provide for my family” — 30 percent
“Having the career of my dreams” — 27 percent
“Being rich and/or famous” — 20 percent
“Owning my own business” — 7 percent
“Being ‘the Boss’ ” — 5 percent
Fifty-eight percent say a college education is a necessity in order to achieve the dream, with 20 percent of those saying a four-year university degree is mandatory. While only 3 percent believed they could achieve the American dream on a salary of $25,000 or less, one-quarter thought a $100,000 annual income was sufficient. In addition, a whopping 71 percent believed they personally can achieve the American dream. Notice how “me”-centric the teenage version of the American Dream is…
a handful of my very random thoughts:
first, i was surprised a bit to see “being happy, no matter what i do” rank so high as a definition of the american dream. while anastasia rightly says teens’ responses are me-centric, i was encouraged that the number one response was NOT about materialism, not about “stuff”. my impression/understanding of the american dream (similar to the wikipedia definition) has to do with typical american measurements of success: owning stuff, having access to a job, owning a home.
of course, we all know that the american dream is, for many, a falicy. or, at the very least, not equally accessible. but that’s not the point of my rumination here. “being happy no matter what i do” is COUNTER to consumerism. “being happy no matter what i do” has in its wording a counter-cultural defiance, implying that i can be happy even if i do not have stuff.
that said, most of my other responses were not as positive.
part of my frustration is that i think youth ministry willingly swallowed the baited hook of the american dream promise. in other words: so much of what’s been done in the name of “youth ministry” in the past 35 years has really been about trying to get teenagers to buy into a combo-platter of the american dream and a moralism wrongly called christianity. we’ve tried to shape kids into “good church goers” and “good citizens”. and, in this context, “good” means “active and compliant”. let’s embrace the values of non-activity and non-compliance!
i also thought: if we polled teenagers in most youth groups, we probably wouldn’t get findings that are quantifiably different.
and: can we just set the concept of “the american dream” in a nice glass-covered display case and consider it an interesting relic of our history? it’s built on such a deeply flawed set of values and assumptions. everyone does not have equal access to “success”. and, then, even for those who do have access, the “success” doesn’t bring happiness or contentment. and this is where i am most concerned: that we continue to perpetuate (even if we never use the term) the notion, in our youth groups, that…
– god will bless you with a comfy, stuff-filled life if you’re a good boy or girl
– the goal of discipleship is to have good answers
– other than a few supermen and superwomen who are “called” to pastoral or missionary work, the life the rest of us normal disciples are called to is one of a daily quiet time, church attendance a couple times a week, some role in serving the church, and giving to the church. all other time and resources (and values and relationships and decisions and, well, everything) fall out of the domain of anything god gives a flying rip about.
how ’bout we swear off ever using “the american dream” (either in word or concept), and, instead, start talking about “the dream of god”. that vision of god’s from before time and creation. that dream of god’s during creation — of what this world could be, of what we could be. let’s build our ministries around walking with our kids into living in the dream of god.