NOTE: This was originally written in March 2008.
The American Dream: the proverbial sense that an American individual has succeeded in all aspects of life and has reached an ultimate sense of happiness. What does the American Dream really encompass? How does one achieve it? Is there a map or set of guidelines a person must follow in order to feel as if he or she has lived up to the highest level of potential and achievement? While I was growing up, my parents, teachers, and mentors, all reiterated over and over how important it was for me to get an education in order to lead a successful and abundant life. I was told repeatedly that anyone, regardless of whom you were, or where you were from, could lead a fulfilling life with hard work, patience and perseverance.
As a child, I was faced with hardships many other children do not face. My parents separated when I was eight years old, and followed up with a very messy divorce. I spent time living in foster care while my father fought for custody for my siblings and me. My parents had seven children all together, and at the time, some of us were sent to different homes to live. My father eventually earned custody of all the children, except my oldest brother (who was then on his own). The day we were released from foster care, I thought all our family’s troubles were behind us, but they had only just begun. While in foster care, and in the years that followed, my siblings and I dealt with physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. My father lost his job, and my mother relentlessly battled it out with him in court over whether or not he was a good parent. Eventually, he lost custody of three of my siblings, who were handed over to my mother. Having very limited options, my father filed for welfare. For a year and a half, we struggled to get by, living off of food stamps and hoping we had just enough money every month to pay the rent. My father remarried when I was twelve years old, but our family continued to struggle to pay the bills as my parents continued to battle in court.
Witnessing and surviving the hardships my family went through at a young age, I knew I wanted more for myself. I wanted to live a fulfilling life, not just simply dream about it. I began working at age 16, as most teenagers do, to begin my ascent into adulthood and to pay for life’s small luxuries. For High School students, the job market is very limited due to lack of education and experience. Most teenagers, including myself at that age, have the only option to work entry-level positions at restaurants and/or retail chains, making minimum wage. By landing and maintaining my first job throughout High School, I took a step towards achieving the American Dream.
At 16, I was a junior in High School and did not have very many responsibilities that required me to work for money. But, having a job liberated me from having to rely on my parents to pay for things I wanted. The job I held in High School also allowed me to save up some money for college – I bought a new computer, a car, and paid for some of my tuition with the money I had saved. Once I got to college, I knew the expenses would only increase with my endeavors toward my own independence, so I continued to work throughout my college career to make ends meet. I sacrificed much of my personal time in order to work and go to school full-time. My senior year of college, I decided to move off campus and had to work 3 part-time jobs to afford my apartment. There were times I felt I could only stretch myself so far, but I was convinced my hard work would pay off once I graduated and rightly earned a successful career. I was dreaming the American Dream and doing what I thought I was supposed to do in order to achieve it.
Now, at almost 26, and nearly four years since I graduated from college, I find myself working in the same job market available to me when I was 16. My college education has done nothing more but accrue thousands of dollars of debt for me and I have yet to land a job suitable for the marketable skills I learned while in school. I am an educated 26-year-old working in food service. I have applied for administrative and clerical positions online via job search engines. I have applied at temp agencies, and have even tried social networking in order to land the successful career I was told I needed to attain in order to live a happy, abundant life.
Most of the companies I have applied for do not even contact me for an interview. The temp agencies I have applied for have told me repeatedly that I have great skills, but the economy is in such terrible shape and the job market is so competitive, it is almost impossible to find entry-level positions with any company. So, now the question I have is, why is the economy in such terrible shape that someone like myself, who worked so hard to get an education, is stuck working in food service? If I had known this is where I would have ended up at my age, I never would have gone to college in the first place. Does this mean I was lied to while I was growing up? Is the American Dream truly attainable for any individual? Is getting an education really essential?
Recently, Britney Spears released a single off of her fifth album, Blackout, titled Piece of Me. In the song, she proclaims herself to have been living the American Dream since she was seventeen years old. Ironically enough, Britney Spears never had to work more than one job to pay for college. In fact, she chose to leave her education behind in order to pursue a career in the music industry and was very successful. Her endeavors led her to great fame and fortune. However, recent media coverage of her personal life, and her song, Piece of Me, suggests that living the American Dream leads to great fortune as well as great frustration. Britney Spears has made it publicly known how she struggles on a daily basis just to keep her private life from being scrutinized. Does this mean one of the ramifications of the American Dream is giving up your own right to privacy? Most Americans, as humans, cherish their private life and could not function well without it. So, is Britney Spears really living the American Dream?
Britney Spears is an exceptional case of an individual who sought fame and fortune – many people are happy to settle for much less. I am not exceptional person. I am not seeking great fame or fortune. What I am seeking is happiness and the exhilaration that I am living up to my fullest potential. Instead of finding happiness, I find myself disappointed, confused, and extremely frustrated. My only consolation is knowing I am not alone. There are several people I speak with and work alongside that are in the same wearisome position as myself. There are many others who have earned an education but have yet been able to utilize their skills, all the same wondering when they will get their lucky break.
Who is to blame for the economy being in such horrible shape? Is it because of the exponential growth of U.S. citizens? Is the U.S. in desperate need of social reform? Is the education system corrupt? Is the Government corrupt? Is there anything that anyone can do to ensure that someone who worked hard to get through college is guaranteed a pay off in the end? These questions will go unanswered as I continue to work punching keys on a cash register.