Don't forget the American Dream

Commentator David Willis

Kai Ryssdal: We've spent no small amount of time the past couple of weeks on the European debt crisis -- what it means both here and over there. Tomorrow on the broadcast, we're going to partner -- for the first time -- with the BBC for a slightly different perspective. How Europe's problems are playing out all over the world.

For now, a taste from longtime BBC contributor David Willis on how America is handling it.


David Willis: If there was one thing that floored me when I first came to America, it wasn't the size of the restaurant portions or that strange habit that you have of saying "sked-ule" when you really mean "schedule", and "aloo-minum" when you mean "aluminium," it was the optimism. From the bank clerks to the cocktail waitresses, everyone seemed to have it in almost industrial quantities -- to the point where the most basic of daily rituals could turn into something quite surreal.

Take the simple greeting "How are you?" Ask a stranger in America that question and you could be knocked off your feet: "I'm great! How about you?"

Ask the same question of someone in Britain and you'll get something like this: "Well not bad, I s'pose. Mustn't grumble."

Which is one reason why America was such a refreshing change. And no matter where I went in this vast and varied nation that boisterous optimism was there to greet me -- a testament to the power of the American Dream.

I often wonder when it started to go wrong. I first noticed it a couple of years ago when everybody I met was either drowning in a sea of mortgage or credit card debt, or cursing the effects of the latest bout of European contagion on their pension plan. All that American optimism seemed to have evaporated, and suddenly the future looked positively frightening.

Witness my friend Billy, whose promising classical music career was cut short by a stroke. We meet every week at the same coffee shop and in the time I've known him he's done everything from movie "extra" work to telemarketing. Yet when it comes to a full-time job, he says they're as rare as a pig in flight.

Billy: I call them "jobettes" -- which are basically under 40 hours a week without health benefits. If one is willing to do two or three jobs of those, that situation is readily available. However, I think the old-style, full-time job that paid for health insurance, lots of other benefits, that I find very difficult to obtain.

But jobs are not the only thing that are hard to find these days. Another friend of mine -- Brad -- believes it's time the entire American middle class was listed as "Missing In Action." A salesman for a security company, he's working twice as hard as he was a few years ago, for half the pay.

Brad: The American Dream the way I used to see it was that anyone that's willing to work hard and show up for work could achieve the basic American Dream: a small house with a white picket fence and maybe have a couple of kids. And it seems like nowadays you have to be of stellar intellect or have an enormous amount of ambition to just have the basic, small, little tiny square house.

Today Europe may seem to pose a threat to the American Dream but it may also provide a solution. We Europeans are used to a slightly more "flexible" lifestyle with a greater emphasis on leisure, and work-life balance. That's something a lot of Americans seem to be yearning for these days. But I'd steer clear of some of our other habits if I was you. The last thing I need is to greet someone with a cheery 'How d'you do?' only to hear them respond: "Well, not bad I s'pose. Mustn't grumble."


Ryssdal: David Willis lives -- and mispronounces -- in Los Angeles. Tomorrow, a co-production with the BBC World Service and its top economic program "Business Daily" on the impact of Europe's problems anywhere Europe does business.

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