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The American Dream — possible for everyone?

April 18, 2014
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A number of topics have come together to help shape this article. Maybe the best place to start is by setting the stage about the concept of the American Dream.

In simple terms it is the idea that everyone can better themselves if they make the effort. It doesn’t matter what station in life you are born to — low, middle or even high. Wherever you begin, if you have a goal to do more, or accomplish a major objective, or change the world, you can make it happen.

Of course, this is no easy task in most situations because there is always something or someone who is pushing in a different direction. Freedom to change things is the underlying behavior that is built into the American psyche or embraced by people who come to America. We embrace the concept that the individual is the driver of all things, and those who make things happen resist group think and following the norm. We may use a variety of techniques to accomplish our dreams and we understand the need for rules and regulations to maintain order and minimize chaos, but nibbling around at the edges for new ways to do things is OK.

In general, we want the playing field to be equal for everyone — that no one has more rights than others, and effort and contributions will be rewarded. It is Mom and apple pie, and who can be against these notions?

Where do we stand?

If we all believe in these concepts, why do we have such philosophical struggles 250 years after the founding of a nation built on equality? One of those topics I referred to above is the 50th anniversary of the civil rights legislation initiated by President Kennedy and enacted by President Johnson. It was clearly consistent with the founding national principles. However, the implementation of the law was no simple matter as historians still discuss in the various programs today.

Similar struggles seem to surface in nearly every news story, whether it is immigration, health care legislation, same-sex marriage, government overreach, wage inequality or unemployment benefits for those who don’t deserve them, etc. It’s been 60 years since the famous Brown v. Board of Education that desegregated the Tuscaloosa, Ala., schools, which are now segregated again as a result of a weakening in the regulations. It appears we are developing a mentality that everyone is out to take away the things that are rightfully ours, and the only way we can prevent that is to hold down those who are trying to achieve the American Dream for themselves.

What is the answer?

As a nation, we spend so much time, effort and money to prevent change that we frequently lose sight of what can be achieved if we focus on creating paths for those who would contribute if given the chance. Instead of always holding back, if we shared just a bit or if we “paid it forward,” we might all be better off.

What does all this have to do with human resources? The underlying role of HR is to create an environment that helps the organization achieve its objectives through the people it hires and touches. Studies continuously show the more positive the environment, the more productive the people.

If the people can concentrate on the organization’s objectives because they don’t have to keep watching their back, that focus brings greater productivity and results. Instead of people getting up in arms because the president signs an executive order on pay equality in government contracts and even allows employees to talk about their pay, embrace the fact that he is trying to support the American Dream.

Our environment, whether at the work site, in our schools or in our social lives, should not be about resisting change but about making change. It should be about change that improves all aspects of the mission or vision, not just the bottom line. It should be about groups and individuals striving for goals, but not at the cost of others. The size of the pie is not fixed, especially if our objective is to work on making it bigger for all of us. Who can be against that? If we don’t increase the size of the pie, some other country or competitor will eat our lunch.

Yes, we will still need police and HR people to deal with those who go too far in “working the system” or infringing on the rights of others, but maybe we won’t have so many in that category if the playing field is truly level and people feel they will be rewarded according to their effort and contributions.

Is the American Dream real?

Can it happen? I believe it can. Two examples: Under adversity we all pull together, such as with the anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing. Thousands of people came together under the banner of “Boston Strong” to signify a unity that we will not be bullied by terrorists. In Wisconsin, the son of an immigrant who was murdered in a hate crime shooting at a Sikh temple is now running for Congress. He says his father instilled in him that this country is a place where everyone can achieve the American Dream.

If we refocus on the dream and take whatever steps we can to allow and support a level playing field, it can happen — over and over again.

Ardon Schambers is principal of P3HR Consulting and Services in Grand Rapids.

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