The American Dream as a Pleasant Haze

The next generation isn't as concerned with making money as it is with making a difference, says pollster and author John Zogby

Editor's Rating:

The Good: A pollster's provocative, but sometimes maddening, peek into our future

The Bad: It's unclear that Americans are quite so accepting of straitened circumstances

The Bottom Line: A debatable and at times Pollyannish take on Americans' state of mind

The Way We'll Be: The Zogby Report onthe Transformation of the American DreamBy John ZogbyRandom House; 235 pp; $26

If you watch political coverage on television, chances are you know the name, and the face, of John Zogby. One of the few pollsters to predict Barack Obama's victory in the Iowa caucuses, Zogby appears regularly on network news shows and on such cable fare as The Daily Show With Jon Stewart. In addition to his gig as a political seer, he has a host of heavyweight corporate clients, including Coca-Cola (KO), IBM (IBM), and Microsoft (MSFT). In general, Zogby comes across as a serious man with his finger reliably on the pulse of the U.S. public. But his new book, which draws upon his years of research to offer a peek into our future, may have you rolling your eyes.

The provocative but occasionally maddening The Way We'll Be: The Zogby Report on the Transformation of the American Dream asserts that we are in the midst of an assumption-shaking, hope-inducing transition. We are recognizing, the author says, that there are limits to how much we can or should consume, on how much our economy can grow, and on our country's power in the world. And apparently we're fine with all that.

The author emphasizes that he's not a Pollyanna: He still thinks global warming is a problem, and he admits we will have to endure wars, economic disruptions, and undeserving political leaders. But basically, we'll be all right. Here's how the author sees things: "We are in the middle of a fundamental reorientation of the American character away from wanton consumption and toward a new global citizenry in an age of limited resources. Beneath the surface, I have found, millions of us live in quiet acceptance of the new boundaries that have been placed on us." I hope the first part of that passage is true. Who wouldn't? It's how he describes Americans' response that stopped me.

In the broadest terms, U.S. citizens are adapting to straitened circumstances, ones that have long been familiar to people in other lands. But by paying scant attention to the fact that layoffs, industry declines, or, say, the housing crisis have been wrenching for individuals, Zogby diminishes his credibility (or at least strains the reader's credulity). Rather than despairing, he writes: "The people who are losing their jobs are adjusting. They're altering their ambitions . . . to bring them in line with the realities of their lives."

When it comes to the growing gap between the rich and the poor, Zogby says most citizens are O.K. with that, too. "Rather than boil with resentment that some have so much when others have so little, most Americans seem to accept the billionaires among us and even empathize with the problems that come with having too much of everything." We do?

Aside from living with limits, Americans are now embracing diversity, looking inward for spiritual comfort, and demanding authenticity from businesses and politicians. Put that way, this new reality doesn't sound so bad.

As ever, the young are spearheading the changes, says Zogby. Indeed, he is enchanted by the demographic known as the Millennials or Gen Y. Zogby terms them the First Globals for their cross-border perspective, arms-wide acceptance of people and ideas, and "nomadic" attitudes toward work and life. For them, jobs are a way to make money; fulfillment and self-definition come from what they do with the rest of their time. Zogby predicts they will "be the first since the GIs of World War II to give freely of themselves to make the world a better place."

How should marketers approach this evolution of attitudes among the general public? Zogby has various tips. The most interesting: Don't let niche marketing and micro-targeting blind you to the ideas and values that most people share; don't lie or make ridiculous boasts; and give good value. Americans will always shop, but now they have little interest in conspicuous consumption, he claims.

And when it comes to those First Globals, it's all about being real. "Like guild merchants of yore, they bite every metaphorical coin they are handed to see if the metal is real or false." So, what does that mean concretely? For one thing, he says, one-third of First Globals have ended relationships by e-mail or text message, a no-nonsense, cut-and-dried way to communicate, the author implies. If that's the way we'll be, I'm a bit worried.

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