What Happened To The American Dream?

Summertime conjures a myriad of visual ideals, some from our past, some from magazine print ads and TV commercials, and some from the clichés of history.   Often times, wanderlust summer dreams are riddled with a sense of disenchantment that lectures gone are the days when the raspberries were always fresh, ripe, red and sweet, when river rope swings heralded the most majestic sun-kissed shallows, when bikes rested on the side of wide open neighbourhood streets without borders or divisions, when mothers mixed pitchers of homemade lemonade and fathers stood grill-side, sizzling chunks of juicy prime chargrilled goodness.  Was it ever real or should the refrain have been: gone are the dreams instead of gone are the days?  What are we lusting after today by way of the family ideal?   While social change coincides directly with economic and political development, we begin to see the emergence of a new-age ideal, a post-modernist social structure, which ironically heralds a return to the simplicities we were so eager to leave behind a century ago.

It is interesting to note that the breakdown of the family structure is not a new phenomenon.  Western society has reported a disturbance within the family model for the past 150 years; a disruption caused primarily by the emergence of the Industrial Revolution and later by the Industrial Age of the second half of the 19th century and early 20th century.  In 1875 the New York Times reported that the corrupting of morals in America, the separation of families and children from any knowledge or participation in family life, bears a direct correlation to the material development of resources, prosperous times and domestic and social ambition, (which inevitably lead to a sense of personal importance over family unity).   In 1916, an essayist in Harper’s Monthly Magazine wrote about the “Break-up of the Family” and in 1947, Life Magazine did a large feature on “The American Family in Trouble.” An opening paragraph divulged that emerging statistics proved a distinctive fact: the American family, stuck in the millrace of social and technological change, was in deep distress.   It is true that a shift from a predominantly agricultural society to the march of industrialization saw the breakup of large interconnected households, whereby family members migrated to booming cities that could support higher industrial wages that allowed for the development of social interests outside the family unit.

So how far have we come since then?  According to the United Nations, some of the major global trends effecting families today are migration, demographic aging and globalization.  Many argue that modern society now embodies an extreme form of individualism, whereby children as young as 2 and 3 years of age, imbibe a sense of early self-importance through technological escapism, (the social media crutch), a mutual relationship that only grows more strongly as the population ages.  It is this recent technological social phenomenon that has become the outward pull constantly threatening what little family unity remains.  Internet, though a fantastic catalytic tool for globalization, has brought the world closer together at the cost of separating us from ourselves.  The forces of social change see families where members do little more than sleep and eat together. They buy everything, yet produce nothing themselves but for the money to afford their purchases.  In many ways, the individual is becoming more atomistic, looking outside the home for his or her interest.  On the other hand, modernization has witnessed a newfound tolerance and acceptance for a variety of social forms and archetypes, which are the outcome of individual choice.

So the question is, what family ideal is more or less realistic? Is the summertime dream of raspberry picking, root beer floats, running through sprinklers, and smelling backyard BBQ alongside immediate and extended family a realistic identity? While most agree the celebrated breadwinner-homemaker family model of the 1950s that many of us tend to reference was a grossly impractical style, (inspired by the preceding depression years and the Second World War), most of us nevertheless want to return to some kind of simplistic harmony, where what we eat, what we say, what we do, how we dress and who we are, are not simply dictated to us by social online media sources.  We want simpler food.  We want our own gardens back again.  We want natural fibers.  We want to wash ourselves with fewer chemicals and ingest more wholesome, nutritious home-cooked meals.  We want books and music.  We want deeper connections with our children, our husbands and wives and our grandparents.  We want to live more synergistically within society.

Alongside our return to simplicity, it seems we must embrace new family forms as part of the expression of choice, to focus on strengthening freedom within the family and those principles of democratic equality.  As the economy gets increasingly difficult, competition for jobs escalates, resources dwindle, population increases and pollution rises, we begin to feel the tense grip of encumbering capitalism and the tight squeeze of globalization.   In strong defiance, families are beginning to band together again, as elements of the 18th and 19th century agrarian society have become the new ideal.  Economic interdependence and common interests that once formed the foundation for close family unity are beginning to have a driving impact once again.   Despite the endless sea of computer code and digital jungles in cyberspace, we are clinging to the soils of the earth and the fleshiness of our humanity.  Leaving our cellphones and IPads, IPods, cameras and technologies behind, we release ourselves into a new state of liberty – the kind that rejoices in the taste of ripe freshly picked fruit, of ice-cream, and cold water running from a tap.  The kind that embraces large family picnics and backyard BBQs, the kind that finds value in all the small, simple, yet beautiful things.

-Elizabeth Cucnik

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