Somewhere along the way the American Dream turned into the American Expectation. Once it was considered a blessing to have the opportunity to succeed through hard work. This has since morphed into the notion that if you work hard, you will succeed. The problem with expectations, of course, is that they can’t always be met. We see this today amidst the plummeting stock prices, budget cuts and rising unemployment that have left millions of hard-working citizens reeling. This time of economic hardship has the ability to squelch the shared American expectation of a bright future. As the class of 2008 and current seniors struggle to find gainful employment, many are left asking, “What happened to the American dream?”
We’re not the first generation to be disappointed. The comparison between America today and America during the Great Depression has been made repeatedly, and rightly so. But the similarities between then and now extend beyond falling stocks. In a recent opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, Professor Sean McCann examines how the American ethos came into question during the Great Depression. In “Will This Crisis Produce a ‘Gatsby’?” McCann writes of the authors and artists of the 1930s whose work suggests that the Depression deeply rocked an essential element of American ideology. Authors like Sherwood Anderson, McCann writes, understood “the notion that the United States is a uniquely open society, where the talented and industrious always have the chance to better their lot, is a central element of American self-understanding.” In his 1935 book Puzzled America, Anderson wrote how this notion was severely shaken during the Great Depression, resulting in what he called a “crisis of belief.” With everything they had been promised in peril, Americans were thrown into a state of self-doubt.
Oddly enough, Americans currently experiencing their own crisis of belief might consider looking to the Depression for comfort. Society did eventually manage to regain its collective footing. From the Depression came classic works of literature like The Grapes of Wrath and governmental innovations like the New Deal, which we can thank for a minimum wage and a 40-hour workweek. As President Obama noted in his address to Congress on Tuesday, “We are a nation that has seen promise amid peril, and claimed opportunity from ordeal.” In other words, there is something distinctly American about bad times producing some very good things. Though the current state of the world is enough to make anyone nervous, particularly college students about to enter the job market for the first time, it needn’t paralyze us with fear. If history really does repeat itself, perhaps we shouldn’t be so worried.