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Is It Time To Replace The American Dream?

Today's youth find little value in the caricature of human nature as rational, calculating and utilitarian. They prefer to think of human nature as empathic.

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After all, if the American Dream were really working, each person would be able to fend for him or herself in a self-regulating market and be without need of an economic stimulus package or universal healthcare. The reality, however, is that nearly one out of five Americans are either unemployed, underemployed, or have given up looking for work all together, and millions of families are facing foreclosures in a land where homeownership has been regarded as the epitome of the American Dream. Climate change is particularly upsetting; it implies that the invisible hand of the marketplace is both an enabler of global warming and incapable of addressing it without government intervention.

When we consider these big picture policy issues, what becomes clear, if we bother to read between the lines, is that our long held beliefs about human nature, and by extension, the institutions we have created to express those beliefs, played no small role in precipitating the very crisis that now faces the country. In a nation that has come to think of human nature as competitive, even predatory, self serving, acquisitive and utilitarian, is it any wonder that those very values have led to a "winner take all" syndrome in the marketplace in which the rich get richer while everyone else becomes marginalized, and the well-being of the larger community, including the biosphere, becomes eroded? The US ranks 27th among industrialized countries, in income disparity -- the gap between the very rich and the very poor. Only Mexico, Turkey and Portugal, of the OECD nations, have greater disparity of income. Moreover, the US enjoys the dubious distinction of being one of the two leading contributors to global greenhouse gas emissions in the world. Could it be that the American Dream is becoming the American nightmare?

Interestingly, a younger generation of Americans is growing up in a very different world than the one described by the Enlightenment thinkers. Their reality is being lived out on a digital commons and in social spaces on the World Wide Web. All across America, our nation's teens are performing hundreds of hours of community service as part of their formal educational requirements. In school, they are learning that every activity they engage in -- the food they eat, the car they drive, the clothes they wear -- comes with a carbon footprint and affects the well-being of every other human being and fellow creature on Earth.

Today's youth are globally connected. They are Skyping in real time with their cohorts and friends on the far corners of the Earth. They are sharing information, knowledge, and mutual aid in cyberspace chat rooms, apparently unaware of the so called "tragedy of the commons." They have little regard for traditional property rights -- especially copyrights, trademarks, and patents -- believing information should run free. They are far more concerned with sharing access than protecting ownership. They think of themselves less as autonomous agents -- an island to oneself -- and more as actors in an ever shifting set of roles and relationships. Personal wealth, while still important, is not considered an endgame, but only a baseline consideration for enjoying a more immaterial existence, including more meaningful experiences in diverse communities.

Surveys show that the millennial generation in the United States is much more likely than older generations to feel empathy for others. They are far more concerned with the planetary environment and climate change and more likely to favor sustainable economic growth. They are also more likely to believe that government has a responsibility to take care of people who can't care for themselves, and are more supportive of a bigger role of government in providing basic services. They are more supportive of globalization and immigration than older generations. They are also more racially diverse and the most tolerant of any generation in history in support of gender equality and the willingness to champion the rights of the disabled, gays, other minorities, as well as our fellow creatures. In short, they favor a world of inclusivity over exclusivity, and are more comfortable in distributed networks than in old fashioned centralized hierarchies that establish boundaries and restrictions separating people from one another.