What is the ‘California Dream’?

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Venice Beach Sunset photo by Graham/Flickr/CC

Today’s California dream is not your grandfather’s California dream.

So why do we keep telling ourselves that we’re still seeking the same California dream? “California dream” has become a verbal tic in speeches, a graffiti we scrawl on signs and headlines without thinking about its meaning. Democrats and Republicans alike, as they assumed new offices this month, pledged to defend the supposedly enduring California dream. In his inaugural address, Gov. Jerry Brown suggested that the aspirations of today’s California were similar to those of his 19th century California ancestors.

It’s time to stop this nonsense. Ceaselessly paying lip service to that old California dream—of this state as a great destination for people seeking a better life, as a gateway to rapidly acquired wealth for the middle class, as magnet of youth and sprawling and suburban capital of leisure—perpetuates a false picture of what the state has become. And that makes it harder to come up with new dreams that fit today’s California.

To be fair, the old California dream was once powerful. The historian H.W. Brands has shown that the California dream “of instant wealth, won in a twinkling by audacity and good luck,” replaced the old American dream—a dreary and modest Puritan deal—after the Gold Rush. And that dream had some basis in reality. From its beginnings, California was a place with some of the highest wages in the world. Our abundant and talented workforce used those wages to educate their children and dream up all kinds of inventions, from mining equipment to the Internet.

But the dream was mostly myth. Many Californians got ahead here because of exploitation of labor—miners benefited from the forced labor of natives, the Irish from the boycott of the Chinese, and my Dust Bowl Okie forebears advanced out of orange groves when Mexicans were brought in to do the hardest work. And the waves of California growth that are often recounted—railroad booms, citrus in the 1880s, oil and auto in the early 20th century, aerospace in the post-war era—were also bubbles that popped and did real damage to many lives.

It’s time to awaken from that old dream and look in the mirror. We are no longer the same great destination for people dreaming of a new life. A majority of us are now native-born Californians. We have many immigrants, but few are new arrivals. The younger, working-class people who once flocked to California are leaving. And so we are not as young as we think we are.

And for all our millionaires and billionaires, California is defined not by easy leisure, but by hard work and struggle. Our unemployment rate is higher than the national average. We have the country’s highest poverty rate, according to measures that take into account cost of living and the value of government assistance. Home ownership is falling.

What is the dream of this new California? Put simply—to be able to stick it out here. California is a struggle, so we dream of a good struggle, of finding our footing, of figuring out some way to beat the statistics and buy a house and educate our kids. That might seem modest but is quite grand when you consider all the difficulties of being a Californian these days.

The dream of sticking it out influences the narratives that drive our politics. Many of us worship the god of sustainability, which is about inventing new ways to survive here. This new dream explains opposition to taxation in such a liberal place. It already costs so much to live here, so why add new taxes? It’s also telling that when people talk about dreamers in California today, they’re talking about unauthorized immigrants whose dream is to be able to stick around.

This new dream is, of course, a dream about growing old. The elderly population of California is expected to double in the next generation. Many of us dream of being able to retire here, and of having kids who can afford to stick around themselves.

That’s a very different dream than the old one. It’s about continuity, about attachment—and about California not as a place to which you can escape, but as a place where you can belong. We Californians dream today of nothing less and little more than being able to stay, so that we might keep dreaming in this wonderful and difficult state.

Joe Mathews is California and Innovation Editor at Zocalo Public Square, for which he writes the Connecting California column. This was adapted from a longer speech, “What Is the California Dream Now?”