DON'T RENT YOUR DREAMS, OWN THEM
"There's a simple doctrine. Outside of a person's love, the most sacred thing that they can give is their labor. And somehow or another along the way, we tend to forget that. And labor is a very precious thing that you have. And any time that you can combine labor with love, you've made a merger."
--James Carville in The War Room
Not Simply a Means to an End
The work we choose to do reflects who we are. It's not intended to be some trivial endeavor or accidental outlet. But we cannot escape the fact that too many of us spend our best years working harder than ever with less to show for it than ever before.
By day, we're trapped in the monotony of unfulfilling work and jobs that may well disappear tomorrow, and by night, we're buried under the mounting pressure of credit card and student loan debts. We waste years of our lives spinning around an unforgiving hamster wheel of arbitrary rules and irrational fears. We defer our freedom to an antiquated nine-to-five system controlled by others. And yet we see some people control their destinies, own their dreams, and reap their riches--and, in some small way, change the world for the better. They've figured out something many of us have overlooked.
In the 20th century, we all trusted a rewards system that seemed to work. As we pursued the middle-class dream of mobility, we put our noses to the grindstone and toiled. We accepted the rules and in return we enjoyed a fair salary, job security, affordable housing, and lives better than the ones our parents had. These days, however, loyalty doesn't translate into success, and "leaning in" doesn't lead to fulfillment. As we're asked to take on increasingly greater burdens for fewer rewards, we are no longer promised the security, protection, or consistency that used to be the trade- off for chaining ourselves to the plans of others. Meanwhile, while we're denied the pursuit of authentic freedom, others seize opportunities for creative expression and discover work they enjoy in settings supportive of their talents and, in turn, find the life they want. Their ends, their dreams, justify the means. Yours can too.
So What Happened to Our Dreams?
ACHTUNG BABY: The next couple of pages could sting, and that is by design. Put on your big boy pants and keep reading as we make sense of how we got here.
Once upon a time, in a society much like this one, nearly anyone with a decent work ethic and a desire to grow could build a solid career with stability and upward mobility. This was a time when that little house with the white picket fence was within the reach of every man and woman. Yet in our jobless economy, we are £ded by the forces of globalization, the inflation they say "doesn't exist" diminishes any salary gains, most of us are wage slaves living check to check and month to month, and few of us have saved much for the hard times that will come.
In the United States today, 40 million of us are chained to onerous student loans that clip our wings, and more than 20 million of us are confined to our parents' nests. We ask ourselves, What happened to an education that cost less than a house? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller?
Speaking of homes, how about owning a home you can afford to keep? Oh, the irony of buying a house these days! On your way to the poorhouse, so many of us become "house poor" first. Around the globe, millions echo our experience, working hard yet feeling stifled by a stew of uncertainty, becoming less sure about their futures by the day.
Dear Millennials and Gen Xers:
It wasn't always like this.
We're truly sorry.
THE BABY BOOMERS AND THE GREATEST GENERATION
It's a troubling state of affairs. Just as we start to make more money, when we finally feel as if we're getting ahead, the tax system slaps us back to reality. What happened to our own piece of the dream and the freedom to live our lives under rules that make sense?
Is the American Dream alive or dead? That depends on whom you ask. A 2015 survey from the Institute of Politics at Harvard University asked 18- to 29- year-olds that very question. Respondents were nearly evenly split: 48 percent answered "Dead" and 49 percent favored the affirmative "Alive." Interestingly, nearly 58 percent of college graduates said the dream was alive for them personally, whereas only 42 percent of noncollege graduates felt the same way.1
Among our 30- and 40-something peers, whom we informally polled, the results were about the same, with nearly half believing the American Dream to be either dead or in purgatory. This got us thinking that perhaps some of the political rhetoric of late is right. Maybe there's a bigger game in play? One we're aware of but can't clearly see.
Yes, Virginia, the Game Is Rigged
If you've ever felt as if you were a pawn in someone else's chess match, you're in good company. Legendary comedian George Carlin captured it wryly when he said, "It's a big club, and you ain't in it . . . They tell you what to believe, what to think, what to buy. The table is tilted folks, the game is rigged and nobody seems to notice, nobody seems to care."
Whether you choose to accept Carlin's disheartening outlook or dismiss it, reality reflects that everyone is playing the same game of success among unseen spiderwebs. And the game of success is one of complacency and conformity.
Here's a little secret: We're not playing that game. You shouldn't either.
The age-old tropes for how to live are just models for complacency and conformity: Sit at your school desk, do your work, get good grades, get a car, get hitched, string together some decent jobs, purchase a home and have 2.2 kids, and in 40 years you can retire, idle, and die. Gotcha!
Place our trust in today's system? Please. It's a rigged game designed to snare us from the onset of our adult lives with student loans, credit cards, bloated mortgages, unfulfilling work that quickly gets outsourced to the lowest bidder, overpriced health care, and quickly commoditized McJobs. And the majority who run with the herd hate their jobs anyway. It's no exaggeration. According to research from the Gallup organization, where, incidentally, Jonas once worked--and hated his job--nearly 90 percent of workers around the world feel emotionally disconnected from what they do professionally. Their jobs are more often a source of frustration than one of fulfillment.
The most maddening aspect of this conundrum is that by following all the old rules, we ourselves hold the hand that holds us down. That is, the system seems hell-bent on keeping us in line, and even if we have thousands of reasons to hit the eject button and figure out a better way, we always seem to find an excuse to justify staying stuck.
And as we well know, it sucks.
Not on Sale This Week: The American Dream
Conventional thinking dictates that college is paramount to cultivating a mind capable of critical thought, which leads us down the path toward a meaningful career. On second thought, it is clear that the ability to think critically does, indeed, lead us down that path. But college may or may not be a part of that story. Of course, the college experience may offer value other than mere edification, but any way you look at it, that edification is not exactly inexpensive these days, with the average cost of a 4-year degree in the United States rising dangerously above six figures, two to three times as expensive as colleges in Canada2 and astronomically pricey when compared to no-cost universities in Germany, where fearless Americans and other foreign students have begun to flock to enjoy obvious advantages. But for those who opt to stay within our borders for their education, have no fear: You can always just take out a loan.
And we have. Oh, we have.
The collective amount of student debt owed in the United States has jumped in recent years. Outstanding student loans totaled $516 billion in 2007. By late 2015, student loans had more than doubled, to $1.2 trillion ($1,200,000,000,000)--with 12, count 'em 12, digits after the 1. That's an unprecedented 130 percent increase in about 8 years. To make matters worse, real wages for recent graduates have fallen. The national average salary for those who get jobs sits at around $45,000. But the average college graduate holds more than $30,000 in student debt upon graduation. If a student goes on to graduate school, that debt is likely to balloon to six figures.
What happens when you cannot find a job but still need to make student loan payments to pay for that overpriced degree? You're out of luck, and now you're neck-deep in credit card debt as well.
Unlike credit card debt, student loan debt is virtually impossible to discharge through the existing legal bankruptcy procedures. That's a bit odd, isn't it?
Remember, for consumers, bankruptcy is a way to protect us from being indebted for the rest of our lives by our own poor decision making or unfortunate circumstances. People young and old can legally petition the courts to do away with all types of debt, even those acquired through greed and poor judgment. Idiotic debts incurred through the purchase of luxury goods like that Nautique wake boat we couldn't afford, poorly thought-out loan guarantees, unpaid taxes, et cetera, can all be discharged through bankruptcy proceedings. And yet, student loans remain near immune to such consideration.
Bankruptcy courts are more likely to discharge a foolish gambling debt than a student debt made in good faith. Does that make any sense? It does, but only in a rigged system designed to benefit, guess who? The people whose investment portfolios own our debt in the form of collateralized student loan asset-backed securities (SLABs). That's our system, like it or not.
Today's graduates find themselves trapped in a system that forces them to pay down higher student debts with lower wages, making it all the more likely they'll have no choice but to rent, not own, their dreams in a desperate attempt to keep their heads above the waters of rising debt. That means taking meaningless jobs. Anthropologist David Graeber, author of Debt: The First 5,000 Years, summed it up best: If there's a way of a society committing mass suicide, what better way than to take all the youngest, most energetic, creative, joyous people in your society and saddle them with, like, $50,000 of debt so they have to be slaves? There goes your music. There goes your culture. There goes everything new that would pop out. And in a way, this is what's happened to our society. We're a society that has lost any ability to incorporate the interesting, creative, and eccentric people.
In case you're curious, savvy employers can exploit the debt disadvantage of younger workers, knowing that new law school graduates, for example, hold an average of more than $84,000 in student loans. Law firms enjoy incredible leverage in determining salaries and working hours. After all, when you need to start making student loan payments, you need a job. And to keep that job, you'd better keep your nose clean, kid.
Debt and its discontents are not merely an American phenomenon. Instead, debt's a universal reality, which by design hands us a double-edged sword. On the one hand, loans provide us access to education and a much-needed lifeline to finance us through our rough times and keep our budgets and businesses afloat, those of your authors included. On the other hand, if mismanaged or misunderstood, debt can become an insidious instrument with crushing consequences. So borrower beware: Tread lightly and be grateful if your bet on debt works out.
It is worth nothing that our Australian brethren have a household debt-- including mortgages, credit cards, and personal loans--that rises above that of any other country, at more than 130 percent of GDP.3 Paradoxically, our friends down under are some of the happiest people in the world.
Our lack of money often forces us into making life-changing considerations that can't be taken lightly. There are forces other than money, such as our love for our families and desire for freedom, that force us to shake ourselves free of unfulfilling routine and search for opportunities.
Say Hello to My Little Friend: Freedom
In present-day Cuba, loans are basically nonexistent, and the same goes for free enterprise. The institutionalized lack of consumer choice, near-zero opportunity for social mobility, and absence of rewards from a labor system organized by the overlords of an antiquated, underfunded socialist system drive much frustration and misery.
The societal changes under way remain slow going, but an undercurrent of optimism and disruption runs through the streets, palpable to all, signaling a dramatic transformation in the not-too-distant future. Jonas and his wife, Laura, were excited to experience this firsthand during a recent visit, as they took a closer look at the emerging dreamers and doers, those hustling to drive change in the economy and make a life on their own terms.
Gliding along the Malecón en route to Old Havana, their driver, let's call him Ernesto, recounted his story. "I trained as an electrical engineer at the top school in Cuba. The equivalent of a master's degree in the United States," said Ernesto. "And for my education, you know what I receive? Thirty dollars a month from the government."
Ernesto and his wife, Luci, a nurse, are the proud parents of two young children. Together, they earned about $40 a month, barely enough to buy milk, meat, soap, clothes, and other staples not provided in their rations, a monthly guarantee of certain consumer goods granted to all Cubans by the government.
Ernesto had long dreamed of running his own business designing energy- efficient electrical systems. But operating a private business is really an exercise in futility when government bureaucrats dictate your every move and siphon away any and every dollar you might make.
A few years into the couple's marriage, Ernesto faced a critical choice: He could operate within the rules--in other words, show up to his job, be a loyal supporter of the Cuban revolution, and keep quiet--or he could bend the rules and follow his dream of operating a private business. The latter choice would have to come outside the purview of the Cuban government, and it would come at the risk of a 10-year prison sentence if he were caught. Stay the course or challenge the accepted system to provide exponentially more money, meaning, and momentum for his family.