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

New: 10 Trends for 2014 and Beyond

The Brazil Opportunity

Updates

Sign up for Email Updates

JWT AnxietyIndex

Blog Authors

Jordan Price - Tokyo
Thomas McGillick- Sydney
Marian Berelowitz and Nick Ayala - New York
Aparna Jain - Calcutta
Soh Chin Ong - Singapore
Sean Aaron - Emerging Media
James Richardson - London
Carlos Fernandez - New York
Andres Colmenares - Bogota
Adrian Barrow - New York
Gonzalo Franseca - Buenos Aires
Nina Yiamsamatha - Emerging Media
Juliana Cubillos and Jessica Vaughn - Bogota and New York
Alexandra Stieber - Atlanta
Alex Pallete and Ramon Jimenez - Madrid
Lois Saldana - New York
Ken Fujioka - Brazil
Colette Henry - Dublin
Ramon Jimenez - Madrid
Yael Shpiller - Tel Aviv
Deborah Frenkel - Melbourne
Nina Hammerling Smith - New York
Marian Berelowitz and Maria Orriols - New York
Dylan Viner - New York
Tal Chen - Tel Aviv
Vannya Martinez - Mexico City
Peta Bassett - Bangkok
Ann Mack and Jessica Vaughn - New York
Megan Foley - New York
Sarah Siegel - New York
Geri Kan - Singapore
Ahmed Mahjoub - Dubai
Sigrid Jakob and Rodrigo Maroni - New York
christine
Lina Maria Aguirre - New York
Alec Foege - New York
Davina Wertheimer - Johannesburg
Susie Uzel - London
Andrew Knight and Jessica Vaughn - New York
Marina Bortoluzzi - São Paulo
Ana Hernandes - Sao Paulo
Rasika Fernandes - New Delhi
Maria Orriols - Barcelona
Jessica Vaughn and Sarah Siegel - New York
Harsha Prag - Johannesburg
Pam Garcia – Manila
Katerina Petinos - New York
Jessica Vaughn - New York
katerina
Marian Berelowitz and Sarah Siegel - New York
Meghan McCormick - Emerging Media
Kimberly Douglas - London
Ben Hopkins - London
Marian Berelowitz - New York
Marian Berelowitz and Christine Miranda - New York
Alex Morrison - New York
Anil Bharadiya - Singapore
Tobei Arai - Atlanta
Michael Koenka - Amsterdam
Andrew Hwang - Emerging Media
Deanna Zammit - New York
Lindsey Stafford - New York
Patty Orsini - New Jersey
David Linden - Emerging Media
Mennah Ibrahim - Beirut
Ceren Coskun - Istanbul
Christine Miranda - New York
Ann Mack - New York
Katie Fitzgerald - New York
Aaron Baar - Chicago
Marian Berelowitz and Will Palley - New York
Marian Berelowtiz and Patty Orsini - New York
Alex Brousseau - New York
Hajime Kato - Tokyo
Mariko Kataoka - London
Russell Martin - Cape Town
Marian Berelowitz and Aaron Baar - New York and Chicago
Sharon Panelo - New York
Mollie Hill
Nick Ayala - New York
Katie Fitzgerald and Jessica Vaughn - New York
Will Palley - New York

Things to Watch

  • Emoji everywhere
    April 23, 2014 | 2:15 pm

    Since we spotlighted the “emoji explosion” in Do You Speak Visual?, one of our 10 Trends for 2014, the tiny pictographs have only picked up in popularity. The Wall Street Journal got into the game with a tool that translates headlines into emoji, while Yelp’s mobile app now lets users search using emoji (an Italian flag, for instance, brings up a list of Italian restaurants). Twitter recently added emoji support for Web users (well after the White House started adding emoji to Tweets). The cute icons take a dark turn in video and print ads from PETA that depict cruelty to animals. Meanwhile, Apple has responded to complaints by pledging to make emoji characters more racially diverse. —Marian Berelowitz

    Image credit: The Wall Street Journal

  • Uniqlo, H&M and Retail As the Third Space
    April 15, 2014 | 4:30 pm

    “Retail As the Third Space,” one of our 10 Trends for 2011, is rapidly accelerating: As digital commerce becomes habit for consumers, brick-and-mortar is increasingly focused around experiences, unique environments and customer service, giving shoppers new reasons to visit retail spaces. Uniqlo’s flagship in New York is a good example. A newly renovated floor incorporates a Starbucks (a favorite brand among teens) and, as MarketWatch reports, “lounge sofas, tables and chairs and an iPad station, allowing shoppers to stay and mingle.” Thanks to a partnership with the nearby Museum of Modern Art—resulting in a range that uses images from famous artists—the floor’s design is museum-like, with T-shirts in framed display cases.

    Another recent example in Manhattan is H&M’s flagship, which opened in late 2013, which one writer dubs “The most retail fun you can have with your clothes on.” For more on Retail As the Third Space, find our 2103 report Retail Rebooted here. —Marian Berelowitz

    Image credit: Uniqlo

  • Bitcoin middlemen
    April 10, 2014 | 2:45 pm

    Given its volatility, security issues and legal concerns, merchants interested in accepting bitcoin have a lot to worry about, especially with the possibility (as some see it) that looming regulation could upend the entire system. To mitigate the risk and open merchants up to new revenue streams, startups such as BitPay and Coinvoice make it easier for companies to accept the cryptocurrency.

    These payment processors act as middlemen: A shopper pays in bitcoin, but the merchant can decide whether to be paid in bitcoin, fiat currency, or a combination. This allows companies to shield themselves from the uncertainty of the currency or to dip a toe into accepting it as payment. Until bitcoin becomes more stable and regulated, payment processors such as these will be a safer option for merchants. (For more on bitcoin, see also our post on the Inside Bitcoins conference.) —Nick Ayala

    Image credit: BitPay

  • Delta’s Innovation Class
    April 3, 2014 | 2:15 pm

    Delta’s new Innovation Class allows the influencers of tomorrow to spend a flight with a current industry leader—the airline calls it a “mentoring program at 35,000 feet.” The first mentor was Pebble smart watch creator Eric Migicovsky, on his way to Vancouver for the recent TED conference, who was paired with visual artist James Patten, a 2014 TED senior fellow. The next flight, in May, will feature chef Sean Brock as he heads to the James Beard Awards.

    While Innovation Class isn’t the first such initiative, it’s the first to leverage existing social networks on LinkedIn, where potential seatmates apply to Delta. The program illustrates creativity in using the plethora of touch points marketers have access to and can leverage to create valuable experiences both online and off. —Matt Goldenberg

  • Virtual reality rugby
    March 27, 2014 | 1:00 pm

    While the Oculus Rift headset doesn’t yet have a launch date, brands are already using the virtual reality platform to amaze consumers. To promote Game of Thrones, HBO made fanboys’ dreams come true at this year’s SXSWi with an experience that took viewers on an immersive trip up the show’s famed “Wall.” And U.K. phone company O2 has created “Wear the Rose,” a rugby training experience that combines footage from GoPro cameras with an Oculus headset to give fans the experience of training with England Rugby.

    “Rugby balls are thrown at you to catch, charging players run at you to teach you tackles, and at one point you find yourself in the middle of a scrum,” writes Eurogamer. O2 recently debuted “Wear the Rose” at a stadium match and will showcase it in select U.K. stores starting in June. —Aaron Baar

  • Security as a USP
    March 20, 2014 | 12:45 pm

    As we note in our wrap-up of SXSWi, security is fast becoming a unique selling proposition. Rather than treating it as an afterthought and scrambling to compensate if user data is compromised, more tech companies will build highly secure environments for their users from the start—selling security as a point of differentiation until it becomes a right of entry.

    The secure-communication app Wickr is offering up to $100,000 to any hacker who can crack its defenses and is selling a suite of six privacy features to developers and apps like Snapchat and WhatsApp. Another such app, Telegram, offers a bounty as high as $200,000 to anyone who can crack it. Meanwhile, the upcoming Blackphone is described as “the world’s first smartphone which places privacy and control directly in the hands of its users.” —Ann Mack

  • Watson, AI and customer service
    March 13, 2014 | 1:45 pm

    IBM has been promoting the commercial applications of Watson, its artificial intelligence service, with CEO Ginni Rometty announcing a Watson challenge for mobile developers at the recent Mobile World Congress. Rometty also noted that North Face is testing a website that incorporates Watson intelligence to answer customer queries, as seen in this video of an IBM demo at the MWC. Watson could serve as a “personal shopping concierge” for e-commerce brands, as Ad Age put it.

    At this week’s SXSW in Austin, where IBM has Watson powering a food truck to demonstrate its multifaceted potential, an IBM exec talked up Watson’s potential in the customer-service arena. We’re seeing the beginnings of a world where artificial intelligence powers (and personalizes) an array of brand interactions with consumers. —Marian Berelowitz

     

  • Spritz
    March 7, 2014 | 5:00 pm

    Slate may have to adjust the Minutes to Read feature on its articles. In line with our Age of Impatience trend for 2014, Spritz is a new reading app that uses a new visual technology to help people read at Evelyn Wood speeds or faster.

    Pinpointing the “Optimal Recognition Point,” at which the brain begins to recognize numbers and letters, the program highlights that space for each individual word and places it at the same place on the screen, reducing eye movement. The program can push reading speeds up to 500 words a minute. (You can see it in action here.)

    Sprtiz will be available on Samsung’s new line of wearable technology. —Aaron Baar

    Image credit: Spritz

  • Virtual fitting rooms
    March 4, 2014 | 11:45 am

    PhiSix, a 3D virtual technology company recently acquired by eBay, plans to bring more of the outside world into physical stores’ dressing rooms in an effort to increase sales. We’ve reported before on websites that offer 3D virtual try-ons at home and brick-and-mortar stores that have become living, breathing websites. But PhiSix’s technology takes the virtual fashion experience one step further, allowing shoppers to see how specific items of clothing look on them, in a variety of sizes and contexts, without actually trying them on. With PhiSix’s computer graphics, which will be made available to third-party retailers, shoppers will be able to enter a store dressing room and view themselves wearing clothing in a number of active settings (e.g., swinging a golf club, walking down the street). The technology also recommends other items to consumers, based on a few basic measurement inputs. Although virtual try-on technologies, which have existed for a while, haven’t succeeded in displacing trying on actual clothing, PhiSix’s sexy timesaver may draw more shoppers into physical retail outlets. —Alec Foege

    Image credit: PhiSix

  • Daily Mail’s Just the Pictures app
    February 25, 2014 | 3:15 pm

    The U.K.’s Daily Mail, whose digital content is dominated by photographs, is planning to release an app called Just the Pictures that strips out the text for smartphone readers—or non-readers, in this case—who are looking for snackable content while on the go. At a Mobile World Congress panel in Barcelona, Melanie Scott of the Mail Online said the app will be out in March. Per Scott, the Daily Mail’s current iOS app attracts about a million daily users in the U.K., and they’re opening it four or five times a day for 12 minutes at a time, largely for the pictures. 

    Just the Pictures is another sign of images replacing words in our increasingly visual culture, one of our 10 Trends for 2014. For more on how this trend is affecting the mobile platform, watch for our annual mobile-trends report in April. —Marian Berelowitz

    Image credit: Daily Mail

  • RSSArchive for Things to Watch »