You won’t believe what I found online the other day – it was a Yahoo Finance story about a Yahoo columnist and author who believes that useless increases in the cost of the so-called “American Dream” are sending middle class Americans deeper and deeper into debt. The miraculous element of this story is what the author claims is the cause of this phenomenon: their own spending.
Why is this miraculous, you might ask? Well, we’re talking about a story, published in what most of us would consider the “mainstream media”, that does not take the much more popular and common route of blaming the rich – or some other evil force in the world – that effectively takes the responsibility off of the person holding the money and making decisions about where to spend it.
It’s a relief, I tell you.
The guy’s name is Rich Newman, and he believes that “American Dream inflation” is causing Americans to feel less and less satisfied with the things that we have…things that our grandparents 50 or 60 years ago would definitely view as extreme luxury. Newman remarked that those who live under the poverty line today have at their disposal a similar living space as the average American did 50 years ago.
In other words, compared to yesteryear’s standard of living, we have it very, very good in this country. According to a Heritage study, two-thirds of Americans living in poverty have cable or satellite television; others have air conditioning in their homes, a DVD player, a gaming system like XBox, a flat screen television and Internet access.
It’s wonderful that so many Americans have access to these technologies, but a question is begging to be asked. If poverty in America includes the same kinds of possessions as, quite frankly, the wealthiest among us, what affect is this having on our presumed standard of living? Are these possessions influencing what the majority of us understand the American Dream to be? All this stuff costs money…retirement-killing money.
The American dream has transformed into something quite a bit more consumerist than it has ever been. An ethos of those living in the United States, the American Dream was a concept that used the freedoms and liberties of the American people to essentially define success. Things like property ownership, upward economic and social mobility and the idea that all men and women in this country have the same wonderful opportunities to become masters of their own destinies…to build the life that we want, to enjoy our freedom in the way that makes us the most happy.
It was the fucking definition of happiness in America. It was what the poor and suffering in other nations aspired to achieve. For the love of the almighty, the American Dream was something to be admired.
Is it still something to be admired today? This “dream” has become bastardized into something more akin to the accumulation of stuff, of things that we believe will make us happy, but in reality find themselves in the back of our closets in no time. Pure, unadulterated consumption as the average retirement age creeps ever-so-steadily through the 60s.
How do we fix the notion that we need more “stuff” to feel satisfied? According to Newman, it starts with adjusting our own expectations – the expectation that each generation should effectively be “better off”, or in some way superior than, the one before it. Of course in today’s terms, the phrase “better off” generally means nicer stuff. Big homes, nice cars, expensive cell phones, 75″ plasma or LCD televisions, 300 television channels at the click of a button, surround sound stereos…you name it.
“Let’s re-define what we consider quality of life and living standards”, he said. Think in terms of quality rather than quantity. Simplify. Scale back on the stuff.
People who know me understand that I love to disagree with what so-called experts spout off about, especially on television or the radio. But frankly, I can’t disagree with anything that this Yahoo columnist and author has said, and frankly, I’m heartened to see that we have a financially-wise individual asking the right questions in public.
…and perhaps more importantly, that a major news outlet is willing to publish it.
Steve is a 38-year-old early retiree who writes about the intersection of happiness and financial independence. Steve is a regular contributor to MarketWatch, CNBC, and The Ladders. He lives full-time in his 30′ Airstream Classic and travels the country with his wife Courtney and two rescued dogs.