October 10, 2012

Q&A, Michael Ford, founding director, Center for the Study of the American Dream

Posted by: in North America

In researching our September trend report, “American Dream in the Balance,” we spoke with Michael Ford, founding director of the Center for the Study of the American Dream at Xavier University in Cincinnati. Prior to founding the center, Ford spent nearly 40 years in government, politics and corporate work, serving in nine presidential campaigns and many other gubernatorial, congressional and mayoralty races. Ford discussed the emotional foundations of the Dream and why it endures, conflicting attitudes toward immigrants and changing perceptions of America’s position on the world stage.

What does the American Dream mean today, and how has that changed from the past?

First of all, the American Dream wasn’t named until the Great Depression, but it clearly predated that. The American Dream, when you get down to it, is really not a search for a thing, it is an attitude. It is a willingness to struggle, based on the probability that you have a chance to achieve. And that attitude hasn’t changed.

What has changed are the various and sundry things you might mention along the way, or the way you might characterize your ambitions. But the fundamental aspect of the Dream is about striving, it is an attitude about possibility. That is really it. And especially now, in the middle of a presidential campaign, in the middle of a sudden formal recognition that the middle class is dissipating, the instinct we have to conflate the American Dream with the state of the economy is excessive.

Why is that?

Because it is not true. And it is very hard for us to understand that, partially because companies have been advertising, campaigns have been talking, candidates have been wooing all around the American Dream, and that is a context that the American people don’t really listen to, because they have written off, for the time being, their trust in institutions and they are carrying their own load right now.

Over the years, we have always begun with a “right track”/“wrong track” question [on surveys]. And the “wrong track” has been terrible for the last three or four years, but the confidence in reaching or having reached the American Dream usually equals the wrong track number, or exceeds it. So there is no connection. Yes, things are terrible. Yes, wages have been stagnant since the ’70s. Yes, there is unemployment. All those things are true, and that is reflected in the “wrong track” number. But this basic attitude, this belief in possibility, still resides in many American hearts, and that number always exceeds the “wrong track” number.

You mention that the Dream is fundamentally about striving—what do you think Americans are striving for today?

It is a very general but consistent answer, and that is, “Making a better or creating a better life for my family.” Now what that means will change with the times. But there are fundamentally unifying thoughts here. The persistent strong categories are “To create a better life for my family,” freedom, the idea of opportunity and financial security, which I distinguish from wealth. Because wealth, we are talking about the 1 percent or the 5 percent. Financial security means, “I am paying the bills, and I am putting a little bit away for college for my kids.”

In this context, what does the term “family” mean, and what does “a better life” involve?

The first part, in some respects it almost looks like cocooning, and this is a consequence of the persistent distrust in our national institutions, which previously could have been viewed as partners in Dream achievement. Now they are simply disregarded. Rather than despised, they are just not part of the equation—so the circle of your Dream is your immediate family, it is your circle of friends, it is your extended family. Everyone has their own additions and subtractions, but it is, in many ways, a cocooned idea.

“We have been abandoned by institutions, we are on our own,” and that augments this striving attitude. It is us against whomever. So it isn’t as large as your state or as large as your city but as large as your personal circle, that is how large it is.

And what are people striving for?

Everybody is different. It would be impossible to have 300 million people all wanting the same thing, and if they did, nobody would get it. The unity is that they are trying, that they are striving, they are defiant about it, and that is the story here. It isn’t whether they are spiritual or material or political; they are decreasingly political, I will say that. The faith that Americans used to have that the government was their partner, that the government was competent, that started to collapse in the ’70s, and now it is down to an abysmal number that is almost de minimis.

So, it is not political. People disbelieve the public people who talk about the American Dream. As a speechwriter, I can say, no matter what audience it is, no matter what your partisan inclination is or how extreme it is, you can go into any audience and talk about the American Dream and heads will nod. It is a unifying experience. And again, I would stress that the American Dream is an attitude more than it is a specific search. It is not a Google operation. It is much bigger than that.

What role does immigration play in all of this?

That infusion of new people, of diversity, of new ideas, that is what keeps the flame alive, and we have persistently seen that the strongest supporters are the most recent arrivals. It doesn’t go away—the Mayflower people still have this dream—but it is clearly fed by and is felt most strongly among immigrants. Immigrants don’t come here to acquire our values, they bring them. They bring the willingness to strive, the willingness to work, the willingness to ride through a storm.

However, we found a streak of resentment toward immigrants. Why is this?

I think it is a raw nerve for this reason: There is no American who didn’t come from immigrants somewhere in the family tree, other than Native American Indians. So we all feel this double-edged sword here. We know we wouldn’t be here if our ancestors hadn’t come and fought whatever fights there were for acceptance, for survival, so we have that honorable view packed away. But in terms of new immigrants, here it is divided. For example, in focus groups, when people just talk, the misperception of things available to immigrants is stunning.

The belief that the government gives them a house, guarantees them a job, guarantees them a loan to start a business, all these mythological things are clearly woven into a fearful backdrop that we have. It is clear to Anglo-Americans that they will soon be a minority, if they are not already. And there are some who are afraid of that. There are others who couldn’t care less. We can see it right now, in different states, where the fear of immigration is so great that it is nearly irrational.

On the other hand, when we go through the survey, when we ask directly, “Do you think immigration is important to sustaining the American Dream?” 60 percent-plus always agree, and that is connected to our own history. We all have it. So there is this competition within us between respecting and honoring the past and fearing the future. To me it is less immigration than it is economic uncertainty, but you are right, there is resentment, there is concern, and it is not hard to understand. It is hard to agree with, but it is not hard to understand.

Do you think the country still represents a “Land of Opportunity”?

Obviously the idea of opportunity is fundamental to the whole idea of the Dream, of the striving. Now, if you work hard, the possibility that something is going to happen that is good is obviously increased. Opportunity is not opening the newspaper to the classified section and seeing, “We would like you to call us because we have a job for you that will pay a million dollars.” It isn’t like that. It is just that you live in an environment where people compete, but the trick is, they often have expectations, and that raises everybody’s game. And that is one thing that immigration does—it raises everybody’s game.

When people are angry that immigrants are taking American jobs, what they are saying is, “Immigrants are more qualified, they know the job better, perhaps they are better educated.” You don’t get a job because you are white, in America. You get a job because you are the guy who is qualified. And if immigrants are taking jobs, that is telling you something about our own situation. And that is hard to hear, I suppose, but again, it is a double-edged sword. On one side, there is honorable history that is unavoidably connecting all of us. On the other side, there is fear that “I will lose what I have, I won’t be able to find something new,” because it was taken by a new person. So that is the conflict.

How are systemic factors like unemployment and personal debt impacting people’s perception of America’s status on the global stage?

We hear in focus groups how people believe that everybody in the world wants to move here and we have to keep them out. It is just not true; it is less true than even 10 years ago. That is a result of a number of things, not the least of which is how unwelcoming we are, but beyond that, it is also true that the world is catching up … and for us to think everybody wants to come here is just chauvinistic, it is not true.

I think younger Americans realize our place in the world is not what it was for their grandparents. It is certainly not what it was for the World War II generation, which had something to be proud of. Not only in terms of being part of a greater solution to world problems, but that is when the American economy really took off for the first time, and that was a generation that had a different set of circumstances. Young Americans today are more aware of a balance in the world, more aware of the fact that whatever we achieve, we have to earn, and that isn’t only for you and me, that is for the country.

The idea of exceptionalism, that we are better than everybody else … it is almost a defensive response against decline. Younger people are much more tuned in to the reality of the world, and they don’t feel dishonored or ashamed, they just realize that the world is changing and what we get, we have got to earn.

We’re seeing a generation of global citizens emerge. What does this mean for the “American-ness” of the Dream?

There are certain things about America that are attractive to some people around the world, other things that are anathema, but as Americans, we still don’t go abroad and study as much as we should. The largest group of non-American students who study in the United States are Chinese. And the number of Americans that go to China to study, you could count on your fingers and toes. We are still not participating in the world as much as we should outside our own little technological cocoon.

I don’t think Americans view themselves as nationalistically as they used to, especially younger people, but it is still there. There is still a pride, but there is a pride in your hometown NFL team too. That is not going away. And neither is pride in one’s country. There is more acceptance of the value of other cultures, of other countries. Younger people reflect this, and I think that is great. The American Dream has gone indoors for a while. We are proud of being Americans, but we are not necessarily proud of everything America does, which is part of the letdown of trust in our institutions.

One of the most prevalent descriptions of the American Dream is a home with a white picket fence. Do you think this still has any bearing?

The idea of a home with a white picket fence is an invention. It is a consequence of a huge surge in suburban housing after World War II—it was the creation of a market, the real estate industry, the mortgage industry, the building industry. These people are immensely invested in this comfortable idea that if you own a home, you have made it. The problem is, while advertising has sunk into our minds, it is clearly not the truth today. We know that 1 in 4 Americans who can afford to pay their mortgage are willing to consider a strategic walkaway.

There are more people trying to get out of their mortgage than there are trying to buy a house, and we know that particularly among young people, the idea of owning a home is a financial decision, it is not a Dream decision. And the younger you are, the more likely it is that it will not make sense to you. If you are a Millennial, you are probably struggling with debt already, at a young age. You are struggling with your own parents, who are having a tough time, and your willingness to make a commitment to anything long-term is diminished. The idea that you are going to take on a home ownership responsibility, it is increasingly out of the question for younger Americans. It isn’t that they are deprived, it is that they don’t want it.

[This myth] in itself ignores real estate trends. People are moving back into the city more and more, for different reasons. So home ownership is the hardest thing for us to dismiss as a symbol of the American Dream.

No Responses to "Q&A, Michael Ford, founding director, Center for the Study of the American Dream"

Comment Form

SIGN UP FOR OUR WEEKLY EMAIL NEWSLETTER:

New Trend Report: Meet the New Family

2014 iPad App

JWT AnxietyIndex

Things to Watch

  • Room-sharing service Breather
    September 16, 2014 | 3:30 pm

    Breather

    Described as the “Zipcar for rooms,” Breather is an app that enables access to “beautiful, practical spaces” that can be rented anywhere from 30 minutes to a whole day. While sharing-economy players like LiquidSpace and PivotDesk offer work and meeting spaces, Breather positions its rooms as homey spots that can serve a range of purposes (though not, the founder assures, seedy ones). Rooms include the basics—a desk, a couch, Wi-Fi—as well as some fun touches like a candy jar. Lockitron technology lets users unlock doors with their mobile phones. Breather is available in New York, Montreal and San Francisco, and recently raised $6.5 million in venture capital, citing plans to “own every major market in America.” —Hallie Steiner

    Image credit: Breather

  • Barco Escape’s immersive screens
    September 11, 2014 | 4:15 pm

    Maze Runner

    Escape is a triple-screen system from Barco that “allows you to truly be in the movies, not just at the movies”—in line with the rise of immersive experiences, one of our 10 Trends for 2014 and Beyond. Audiences at five U.S. locations and one Belgian cinema will get their first taste of the concept with next week’s release of The Maze Runner, about a group of teens trapped in a massive maze, which will feature about five minutes of immersive footage at key moments. ScreenX is among the other multi-screen, multi-projection cinema experiences we’ve highlighted. —Aaron Baar

    Image credit: Maze Runner

  • “Smart” personal safety
    September 2, 2014 | 6:01 pm

    Defender

    Earlier this year we wrote about the Guardian Angel, a pendant that alerts emergency contacts whenever wearers feel unsafe, created by JWT Singapore. Smart technology is addressing personal safety in other ways too. The Defender is a smart pepper spray that works in tandem with a mobile app, taking a picture of an attacker while contacting authorities. It’s in the final week of an Indiegogo campaign that has well exceeded its goal. Similarly, First Sign has crowdfunded a smart hairclip that detects physical assault, records the evidence and sends for help.

    Meanwhile, college campuses are embracing a more basic form of this tech, encouraging students to download apps like Rave Guardian and Circle of 6, which enable a chosen network to monitor a student’s GPS location during a night out. In a different vein, students at North Carolina State University made headlines last week for their Undercover Nail Polish, which changes color in the presence of “date rape drugs.” —Allison Kruk

    Image credit: The Defender

  • Nestlé’s animal-welfare standards
    August 28, 2014 | 10:00 am

    Nestle

    We wrote about rising concerns over treatment of the animals that people eat back in 2012 as brands including Burger King, McDonald’s and Hellmann’s pledged to institute more humane practices. We also included Humane Food among our Things to Watch for 2013. The trend recently picked up more steam with Nestlé’s announcement of animal welfare standards for its suppliers worldwide, following an investigation by the group Mercy for Animals.

    “The move is one of the broadest-reaching commitments to improving the quality of life for animals in the food system,” notes The New York Times, “and it is likely to have an impact on other companies that either share the same suppliers or compete with Nestlé.” Observed the influential blogger Food Babe: “People want to know where their food comes from, and in order to survive the next decade, the food industry will have to change.” —Marian Berelowitz

    Image credit: Nestlé

  • Alternative waters
    August 19, 2014 | 1:59 pm

    Vertical Water

    With the coconut water craze going strong, watch for more variations on H2O thanks to consumer interest in more natural alternatives to soda and openness to novel products. Antioxidant-rich maple water (made from maple sap) is gaining attention, while almond water from the startup Victoria’s Kitchen has secured space at Whole Foods and Target. As the AP reports, there’s also cactus, birch and artichoke water—made from either water extracted from the plant or boiled with the ingredient in question—whose makers tout their vitamin and mineral content, as well as their infection-fighting properties. —Allison Kruk

    Image credit: Vertical Water

  • Smart mannequins
    August 13, 2014 | 5:01 pm

    Iconeme

    One of our Things to Watch in 2014, beacons have been popping up everywhere from airports to restaurants to museums. But the biggest pickup for these devices—low-cost transmitters that use Bluetooth to precisely track consumers’ mobile phones and send targeted content—has been among retailers. Now, British retailers including House of Fraser, Hawes & Curtis and Bentalls are testing mannequins outfitted with VMbeacon technology from the startup Iconeme.

    A “smart mannequin” enables nearby shoppers with a related mobile app to get details about what it’s wearing and how to find the products in the store or buy them online. The big question is whether customers will be motivated to opt in; skeptics say the technology doesn’t yet provide enough real benefit. —Allison Kruk

    Image credit: Iconeme

  • De-teching apps
    August 7, 2014 | 10:55 am

    De-teching—the idea that more people will choose to temporarily log off—was one of our 10 Trends for 2011, and in our 2014 trend Mindful Living, we discussed the idea that digitally immersed consumers will try to use technology more mindfully. Perhaps ironically, several new apps aim to help people do so.

    Moment tracks phone use and alerts users when they reach their self-imposed daily limit. Pause is “designed to help us reconnect with real life”; it encourages people to use Airplane Mode and engage in real-world activities, and attempts to turn this behavior into a game among friends. Finally, Menthal is part of a research project out of Germany that helps users find out, “Are you in control of your smartphone? Or is your smartphone controlling you?” —Marian Berelowitz

  • Intuitive eating
    July 29, 2014 | 5:00 pm

    Veggies

    As spotlighted in our 10 Trends for 2014 report, people are becoming more interested in Mindful Living, including the notion of eating more mindfully. And with consumers showing declining interest in dieting, the idea of “intuitive eating”—paying closer attention to the body’s hunger signals rather than following a strict regimen—has been steadily gaining traction. Recent media mentions include articles in Fitness and New Zealand’s Stuff, and a Refinery 29 writer is blogging about adopting the practice. With a recent analysis of studies finding that intuitive eating can be a successful strategy for people who are overweight or obese, watch for more consumers to embrace this anti-diet philosophy. —Allison Kruk

    Image credit: Theresa Kinsella

  • Chinese mega-cities
    July 24, 2014 | 1:15 pm

    Tianjin

    China, home to the world’s second largest rural population, is expected to add close to 300 million more urbanites by 2030, when Shanghai and Beijing will likely account for two of the world’s Top 5 mega-cities, according to new UN research. “We are observing one of the most significant economic transformations the world has seen: 21st-century China is urbanizing on a scale 100 times that seen in 19th-century Britain and at 10 times the speed,” notes a new McKinsey paper on cities and luxury markets. China’s wealth will be concentrated in these urban areas: Over the next decade, McKinsey expects Beijing, Tianjin, Guangzhou, Chongqing and Shenzhen, in addition to Hong Kong, to join the list of “top luxury cities.” —Marian Berelowitz

    Image credit: Jakob Montrasio

  • Brands + Google Glass
    July 15, 2014 | 6:09 pm

    SPG

    As Google Glass makes its way into the hands of more people (last month it became available in the U.K.), brands are experimenting with the new possibilities that the platform affords. In March, Kenneth Cole became the first to launch a marketing campaign—the “Man Up for Mankind Challenge”—through a Glass app. Users were challenged to perform and document good deeds for the chance to win a prize.

    Starwood’s new Glass app, billed as the first such app from the hospitality sector, lets people voice-search its properties, view photos and amenities, get directions and book rooms. An array of other marketers have turned out apps for early adopters, from Sherman Williams’ ColorSnap Glass (easily create a paint chip that mirrors anything in view) to Fidelity (delivers daily market quotes for Glass wearers). —Tony Oblen

    Image credit: SPG

  • RSSArchive for Things to Watch »