On Dissatisfaction

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about what it is that I want. I don’t mean like a cheeseburger or new shoes. I mean, what I really want. A lot of it has to do with (what I perceived to be) the American Dream. You know, nice neighborhood, picket fence, house, yard, the works. And then that got me thinking about what it means to be living the American dream, and where that comes from, and why exactly we’re all chasing it.

Because, as all politicians that I’ve heard speak say, that dream is out of reach for a lot of people. Those people include A and I right now, and lately that’s been making me really sad. And I wanted to know: why am I allowing something that’s out of my reach to upset me? I think it’s because a part of me is obsessed with keeping up with the Joneses. But who are these Joneses and what are they doing to me?

Bear with me; I just want to make some points.

Exhibit A: The American Home.

This was a middle class home to be proud of in 1950:

Click for original source.

This is almost exactly what the home A and I are currently living in looks like. In fact, I live in a subdivision full of these little houses, all of which were built somewhere between 1950 and 1960. They are two bedroom, one bath “tapjack” houses and I’m sure when they were built, the neighborhood was gleaming, with children riding their bicycles on the wide street and a car in every driveway.

So why do I want out so badly?

Because this is where the Joneses live:

Click for original source.

They have at least three bedrooms and two bathrooms. Maybe an extra two bedrooms and bathroom if they’ve finished their basement. If they’re upper middle class, maybe they have a pool.

The new families and “middle-income” people are flocking to neighborhoods with homes like this one because there’s a renaissance going on. People are fixing these older homes with new floors, sheet rock, and gourmet kitchens while the older folks who moved into the then-brand-new tapjack subdivisions in the 1950s are watching them fall into disrepair. People are leaving those neighborhoods in droves now because drug dealers and transients are taking over the vacant spots that were left when the exodus began.

At least, that’s what’s happening in my city. And I don’t think we’re alone in this. Moving on…

Exhibit B: Conveniences

Conveniences are evolving the way we live life. Here’s an example of things that were novel in the 1950s.

And here’s a medley of what we expect today:

There’s a point here: we expect our conveniences. Our society is so global and changing so quickly that we really do feel we need things like smartphones, laptops, cable TV and Internet, etc. And because of the way we now consume information, we are left behind if we don’t have these things. The goal of the conveniences over the decades has always been the same: to give the consumer more free time (only now, our technology eats our free time as well).

Exhibit C: Money

I realize that all statistics are extremely objective. Let’s remember that I’m just making an illustration here, shall we?

Then (1950) Vs. Now (2012)

  • Employment: then – 80% of men had jobs. The average duration of unemployment was 12 weeks. / now – 65% of men have jobs.  The average duration of unemployment is 40 weeks.
  • Housing: then – the average family spent 22% of its income on housing / now – we spend 43% of our income on housing
  • Government Spending: then – the US loaned more money to other countries than any other nation / now – the US owes more money to other countries than any other nation

It’s easy to see why people get nostalgic, even though our lives are more comfortable now than they have ever been. But our comfort has a price: our country’s debt reflects our own poor spending habits. Remember the Jonses house earlier in the post? They spend almost half of their monthly income on their mortgage payments! Now the gas and grocery prices are skyrocketing, they’re probably drowning in a mountain of debt and the sad truth – the really tough truth – is that they put themselves there.

It would be wonderful if the prices on gas, food, clothing, and even our tax rates could go down so our income would be freer, but that’s not our reality. The reality is that the middle class of today is more comfortable than the high rollers of the 1950s, but they gave everything up to be that way. I guess that’s why A and I can’t keep up with the Jonses. We can’t bring ourselves to take a bath in debt, to spend 43% of our income on housing, to buy cable and cell services that we can’t afford, just so that we can live the so-called dream.

I think I’m satisfied with that for the most part. But that small part of me that wants more will always chase the dream, however outrageous the dream may be.

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2 thoughts on “On Dissatisfaction

  1. mar says:

    I can relate to all of this–it used to be in our country that investing in your home was a good investment and when you were ready to retire, you could sell your home and have a “nest egg.” Mortgages were incredibly hard to get, and so folks who got them and bought homes also took care of them. Long story short, there were folks looking for good, safe, profitable investments, and other folks looking for a quick profit, and bam! Housing bubble. Bam! I am house poor because we made most of our income from construction! I often envy folks who have a home payment that allows them to eat out once in a while and take a vacation! Good column–hang on, you will get where you want if you keep your eye on the goal.

  2. I think the hardest thing about our economy right now is that everybody’s up a creek. If you’re living in a place you can actually afford, it’s junk. Even though we can easily afford our mortgage, we’re still underwater, so even though interest rates are great and we could afford to trade up, there’s no way we could unload our house for as much or more than we still owe on it.
    Ugh.

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