American Dream gives way to reality

Carlton Fletcher

Carlton Fletcher

When you ain't got nothin', you ain't got nothin' to lose.

-- Bob Dylan

The "American Dream," that pie-in-the-sky concept of fame and fortune waiting around the corner for those willing to work for it, has been co-opted. Somehow whole generations of Americans are now being taught the American Dream is owed them ... the American Pipe-Dream.

I don't know where our country went wrong, but I tend now to discount the dreamers and the schemers. I'm more drawn to the American Reality: The harsh truth that no matter how hard you work for what you get, someone -- or some calamity -- can take it in the wink of an eye.

Someone I care about deeply -- we'll call her Mildred here to maintain her anonymity -- could serve as Poster Girl for the new American Reality. Unlike those silver-spoon blue bloods who were born to wealth, she grew up in poverty with uneducated parents. Those parents, however, overcame their lack of book learning with a work ethic that has become all but extinct.

And they passed that work ethic on to Mildred.

She left her hometown when she graduated high school, filled with enough wanderlust to want to see what lay beyond the confines of small-town America. She found work -- real work, manual labor -- that paid well enough to afford her an opportunity to continue her education, and she became the first in her family to attain a college degree.

Through the contacts she made in her work, Mildred was able to land an "inside job" with a large company in an even larger city. A "people person," her natural smarts, education and hard work moved her quickly up the ladder, and soon she and some of her like-minded co-workers created a product that allowed them to branch off and form their own company.

With her business acumen and natural charm, Mildred's Rolodex expanded to include names of some of the up-and-comers in corporate America. She sold her business for a tidy profit and started doing consulting work that took her all over the world.

On more than one occasion, Mildred was hired as part of a consulting team put together for projects in exotic locales, and she quickly became manager of the entire project. With these huge responsibilities came huge payoffs, salaries folks back in her small town never even dreamed of.

By the time Mildred was in her 40s, she'd accumulated enough wealth to semi-retire. She worked odd jobs when she wanted, but she mostly used her new-found wealth to purchase real estate and make investments that would secure her future.

But then the recession happened. Like tens of thousands of other Americans, in a matter of months the money that Mildred had accumulated started drying up. She did everything she could to stanch the flow, but before very long she was forced to get rid of her investments, one after the other.

Finally, in what must have seemed like the wink of an eye, Mildred was left with nothing. Literally. Once one of the most in-demand experts in her field, the time away from the corporate game -- plus a dwindling job market -- had turned her into an outsider.

Sadly, this America tale was widespread over the last three or four years. Lack of governmental control over banking and housing industries run wild with lust for money left many Americans in the same boat as Mildred. But while most in that boat sat drifting aimlessly at sea, waiting for a lifeline to be thrown their way, Mildred paddled.

She heard of opportunities in a field far from her area of expertise but decided a job's a job and went after it with the same gusto she'd had when she first left her hometown. And, now that the job market has started to open back up just a bit, some of the businesses that knew Mildred in the past have started to reach out to her again.

As she watched the perfect world she'd built for herself -- a world she'd earned -- implode around her, Mildred never panicked, and she never blamed anyone else. She also did not ask the government or any other entity to take care of her. She simply went back to work.

Mildred's future is by no means assured. Corporate America can't quite kick the lingering aftereffects of the recession, and there's a sense of hesitancy now that didn't exist five years ago. But if I were a gambler and I had to place a do-or-die bet, I'd bet on Mildred.

If anyone's equipped to deal with the new American Reality, it's her. Too bad there aren't more doers out there like Mildred instead of the overabundance of dreamers.

Email Metro Editor Carlton Fletcher at carlton.fletcher@albanyherald.com.