Sep 3, 2010

Time to Abandon the ‘American Dream’

I can’t help but think there’s something off in our society. Our priorities, our objectives, our lifestyle all feel out of balance.

The signs are there. In the Great Reset, Richard Florida writes, “A generation ago, all of life’s basic necessities – housing, transportation, health insurance, education, and taxes – accounted for 54% of the average family’s income; today, they account for 75 percent of it.” North Americans have been fueling their lifestyle on debt for over 65 years. In 1945 debt-to-GDP was 1.4 times. At the start of this economic mess in 2008 debt-to-GDP had risen to over 3.6 times.

But this goes well beyond our spending habits. It’s also how we live. The average American watches 34.5 hours of TV per week, which is basically a full time job: work 8 hours, sleep 8 hours and watch TV 8 hours a day. Clay Shirky goes to town on American’s TV consumption in his book, Cognitive Surplus, and suggests TV is a band-aid for loneliness. North Americans are so indebt they can’t afford to go out, socialize and be with others. They live to work, and fill in their free time with TV, internet and other devices.

Start looking at your habits through fresh eyes

So much of what we do is ritualized and unconscious. When everyone around us is doing the same things and struggling for the same lifestyle goals, it’s hard to recognize that there’s anything wrong. But there is. Between 2008 to 2009 the U.S. job market shed more than 8.4 million jobs, and the unemployment rate still remains high. It rose to 9.6% in July 2010. The economy is not resetting back to pre-recession times as many people had hoped.

Throughout the summer I have been working to pay attention, and view my habits with fresh eyes. I am examining everything from the way I work, to the way I eat and exercise, to the way I interact and socialize. It’s interesting to take a step back, and just be aware.

You never know what you will discover when you become purposefully aware. One small discovery I made, and one I must admit is totally silly and naive, is you can make your own ketchup. It never even crossed my mind. I told my parents about this little a-ha, and they revealed they both grew up on homemade ketchup. Their mothers made and bottled it every summer. I grew up on Heinz on the other hand.

The ketchup discovery got me even more curious, and I started carefully looking at the contents of my fridge and pantry. Mustard, pickles, juices, bread, canned beans, canned tomatoes and so on. All these items have one thing in common: they all have a barcode.

I buy these products, because I like them. I buy them, because they’re convenient. I buy them, because that’s all I’ve ever known. But the barcode observation made me question my choices. There’s no reason why I can’t make these foods from scratch, and in the process eat healthier. It may require some more planning and effort, but I think that’s a worthwhile investment in the betterment of my life.

The recovery will come with millions of little choices

I fundamentally believe our current sluggish economy is much more than an economic slump. We’re not going to get out of this situation like previous recessions on the backs of consumers. We can’t. They’re already financially tapped out.

The ‘American Dream’ professed that every family should own their own home, own a car or two, and acquire all the trappings of a suburban lifestyle. That dream led the GDP growth of the past 65 years. Now it’s time for us to change. This recovery will be led by innovation; innovations in business and innovations in our lifestyle. This is a real opportunity, because each of us can be proactive in driving positive change.

For me Labor Day is very much like New Year’s Eve. It’s a point that signals new beginnings as we get back to work and start launching new projects. I encourage you to take this opportunity to look at your habits with fresh eyes, and discover new ways to have a healthier, happier and more successful life. These are the changes we need to reset our economy.

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