Real Leaders

Has The U.S. Lost The American Dream?

Photo by Simon Abrams on Unsplash

Fifteen countries now surpass the U.S.A. as places that offer its citizens prosperity and success. How Can this spirit be rekindled at home for the benefit of the world? Maria Civita and her husband Antonio, modest winemakers from Itri, Italy, arrived at the nation’s busiest immigrant inspection station, Ellis Island, New York, in 1915 with their six children. From that day onwards, they set to work building a winemaking business and chasing their American Dream, something they had dreamed about when looking at their limited opportunities back home in Italy.

The venture lasted for five years, and then Prohibition abruptly shuttered their doors and dashed their hopes. Maria and Antonio found themselves immigrants in a new country, without a job and no means to support their family. At that time, Italian Americans, along with other ethnic groups, were viewed as perpetual foreigners and not part of America’s heritage. This was despite the fact that almost everyone living in America at the time had been in the same circumstance only a generation or two before. Maria’s survivor spirit fought back.

Not prepared to give up on their dream, they pooled their remaining money and began lending to fellow Italian Americans. These micro-loans helped others pursue their own American Dream, led to the couple eventually formalizing their business, and eventually they became one of the largest regional banks in New England. Similar stories can be found among many of the 12 million people that arrived in the U.S.A. between 1892 and 1954, but for many today it’s just a story, or even a myth. Today there are millions of Americans who feel like outsiders in their own country, who are experiencing the “Prohibition” within their own American Dream.

You only need to read the headlines: Manufacturing trades are disappearing, standards of public education are crumbling, entire cities are going bankrupt and a whole new generation is drowning in student debt. To many, the American Dream is more like a nightmare, and the people today most likely to believe in this dream are those who’ve already achieved it. Although I’m personally generations removed from Maria and have attained a semblance of the American Dream in my personal and professional life, I still feel compelled to follow the example of that courageous, amazing Italian woman, because Maria was my great-grandmother.

The right of every person to attain the American Dream has been instilled in my family for generations; yet somehow, I only recently became aware that I might have joined the ranks of those who are unconsciously biased against others – the very type of attitude that my ancestors had fought hard to overcome nearly 100 years ago. My wake-up call came when I recently delivered a State of the Company speech. Looking at my audience, I realized I was speaking to a sea of people who looked like me. Nearly all were men. Nearly all were white. This was despite some of the highest performers in our organization being women or from minority groups. It occurred to me that I might have been growing my business oblivious to this unconscious bias, which might also be holding my company back. There must surely be others doing the same? Our beautiful minds had become tragically shortsighted.

We should all wake up and consider that America does not hold the rights to the American Dream. It might be more accurate to describe it as the “Human Dream,” as the desire to have your hard work rewarded with a good life is universal. America earned the right to rename it the “American” Dream by being the first country to offer the best chance for upward mobility. Today there are at least 15 countries where you can achieve better upward social mobility than the United States. We might just as easily name it the “Danish Dream” or the “Down Under Dream” or even the “Canadian Dream.”

In 1988, the United States was ranked by The World magazine as the number one place in the world to be born when it comes to opportunity. Today, The Economist Intelligence Unit ranks us at number 16. But wait – we still do rank as number one in other areas. Among rich nations, America has the highest number of children living in poverty, and as the gap between the “haves” and the “have nots” continues to grow, our upward mobility suffers, the dream becomes the exception rather than the rule and society stagnates. This inevitably leads to a faltering economy, with innovation and opportunity being diminished for everyone.

Debbe Kennedy, the author of Putting Our Differences to Work, is quoted as saying, “New wealth avenues are almost always created by outsiders, by people who know little or nothing about the normal way of doing things.” In other words, people just like Maria. You could argue that Maria might well have more barriers to success today than she encountered nearly 100 years ago. A time when women didn’t even have the right to vote. A small portion of our society has hijacked the American Dream, and it will die with that group unless we fight to bring it back. A first step in resolving this is recognizing that the dissolution of the American Dream is everyone’s problem. We can’t wait for the government or the next civil rights leader to bring it back. Each of us can embrace the simple concept of “different” – reach out and proactively embrace different people, different ideas, and different opportunities.

This is far from being a new idea. Studies have shown that companies prosper under diversity. I’m proactively seeking and recruiting qualified people who don’t look like me, or even like the rest of my industry. I’m also empowering them to voice different opinions, even when it’s not what we want to hear. It’s the right thing to do, and it’s also good for business. Thinking different is not just restricted to CEOs, either. If you’re a kid with a rare brittle bone disease that results in 70 broken bones before your 10th birthday, you might easily shy away from the world. Alternatively, you could say, “The world needs a pep talk!” and inspire millions to have a positive attitude, which is exactly what “Kid President” Robby Novak has done on YouTube with his 28.8 million viewers.

How about taking a look at your social media feeds? Do most of them look like you? Think like you? If they do, then you’re probably only receiving a fraction of the world’s information. In 2012, the founders of online marketplace realized they only had five percent female engineers for a website that catered mostly for women. They sponsored a Hacker School Program that provided female engineers with scholarships and ended up recruiting 50 percent women engineers without lowering their hiring standards.

In both the examples above, we see intent and individuals who are expanding on their own American Dream by finding innovative ways to offer the dream to others. This might be through inspiration, a leg up, leadership or an opportunity. The key word here is “intent.” Only by fighting to reclaim the American Dream will it become a reality once more. It must be demanded of our leaders and ourselves.

If each of us looked back we’d probably find a Maria somewhere in our family, someone who wouldn’t let a Prohibition Act destroy their American Dream, or someone who helped make the dream possible for others. We might be dreamers but we’re also doers. Embrace different. Lend a hand or simply inspire others.

Share your stage and stick your neck out – especially when you don’t really have to.

This is an excerpt of a TEDx presentation given by Kevin Maggiacomo, President of Sperry Van Ness International    

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