The American Dream is about freedom, not stuff | Mike Cook

By Mike Cook
Contributing columnist

When my book, “Thrive: Standing on Your Own Two Feet in a Borderless World,” was published in 2006 I had been sitting on the thoughts I shared there for nearly ten years. Over that period I had become deeply concerned about what I considered to be the culturally engrained addiction to jobs that was robbing the workplace of any real hope of ever being a marketplace for full engagement. When, I wondered, had the American Dream shifted from guaranteeing the freedom to choose one’s livelihood to guaranteeing the freedom, no – the desperate need, to have stuff?

Since that time my concern has only deepened.

As long as Americans remain addicted to jobs the game will always be about survival and the trade offs; environmentally, economically, psychologically and emotionally and, in many cases, the quality of life for generations to come. There are many who know this is ultimately unworkable but the truth seems so hard to speak when the audience — the American workforce — believes it is entitled to economic security.

Here in Washington state we have recently seen examples of how this addiction plays out in actions that do not fit with the professed prevailing morality. The state’s largest employer, Boeing, strong-armed economic concessions in the form of reduced taxes from an already stressed government with implied threats of moving large numbers of jobs out of the area. Whatever the citizens of Washington got from the deal you can be sure is only temporary. Not too long from now that very same employer will be back asking for more with the knowledge that the state is addicted to the presence of its jobs. And other large area employers are no doubt emboldened by Boeing’s success.

In his 1998 book, “The Hungry Spirit” author Charles Handy spoke passionately about the addiction to jobs he witnessed everywhere.

“Capitalism, which was supposed to set us free, may be enslaving us in its turn, with its insistence on the dominance of the economic imperative,” Handy wrote.

He was not arguing for abandoning capitalism. Far from it. He was, however, chiding us for having allowed the responsibility for our financial welfare, our economic viability as people, slip away and become the property of organizations.

“The old idea of property as the basis for wealth and power no longer works, when the thing that organizations think that they own turns out to be us,” he wrote.

And make no mistake about it – we have willingly, albeit mostly unconsciously, allowed this addiction to take root with at least four generations of American workers since the onset of the industrial revolution. In that time a nation that was at one time made up of 90 percent self-employed people focused on the freedom to earn a living as they chose had dwindled to around 6 percent by the late 1990s. We had shifted from the focus on freedom to choose our livelihood to the willingness to accommodate just about any trade off in order to guarantee a job, no matter how mundane or unfulfilling it might be.

Witness the proceedings around recent events concerning the proposal to build deep-water ports in the waters of the Salish Sea off the coast of Washington to ship coal to China. What is at stake is the irreplaceable natural asset of the northern Puget Sound. What has been offered in exchange is less than two thousand temporary jobs during a four-year construction period and then a handful of permanent positions. A handful of permanent positions matched up against the bounty of the Salish Sea. Why does this sound like trading a handful of beans for a cow?

But as much as I have been concerned about the economic enslavement of the American Dream — you see it was always about the freedom, not the material goods — there are signs that there is a shift in the wind that has blown us so far off course.

In a Dec. 22 Wired article titled “Predictions for 2015: Power to the People,” entrepreneur Nicolas Kimla, predicts boldly that new technologies are allowing small entrepreneurs new and extraordinary opportunities.

“What was not so widely predicted at the time, though — and what is now becoming exceedingly obvious — the power that Cloud services bring to entrepreneurial startups and small and medium businesses to compete with their corpulent corporate neighbors,” he wrote.

Now, if we can just encourage a mindset shift, one that will allow for a landslide of entrepreneurship to help us recover the American Dream of the freedom to live as we choose. A shift that will once again allow us to stand on our own two feet in a borderless world.

Mike Cook lives in Anacortes. His columns appear on every other Tuesday. He publishes a semi-weekly blog at and also facilitates a monthly business book reading group at Village Books.


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