Chasing the American Dream: It’s a Hustle

(Editor’s Note: This story is part of a partnership between Chasing the Dream and Next Avenue.)

By: Richard Eisenberg

When historian James Truslow Adams coined the term “American Dream” in 1931, he described it as “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement.” These days, the American Dream is about hustling (for men and women).

And, as a terrific new five-part video series of New Yorkers called My Everyday Hustle shows, achieving the American Dream is hard and, in many cases, getting harder.

The ‘My Everyday Hustle’ Series

In her Everyday Hustle video, Uber driver Cecilia Brentlinger, who came to New York City from Peru 17 years ago, says she works 10 to 12 hours a day, “sometimes more,” and, this single mother concedes: “I lost my family time.” When Brentlinger started driving, she had 10,000 miles on her car; she now has 100,000. Uber keeps 25 percent of what she earns; her monthly earnings after expenses, but before Uber takes its cut: $2,274.

Making a living as a subway performer (also called a busker) has grown tougher, too. When she “heads under,” busker and guitarist Heidi Kole says in her Everyday Hustle video, “everyone has headphones on and the world in front of them [their smartphones],” so “you make less now than you did.” Adds Kole: “Everyone is in their own world; it takes a lot to bust through.”

Jobs for Chasing the American Dream

The My Everyday Hustle short videos — each roughly five minutes — are part of New York City public television station WNET’s Chasing the Dream initiative, which focuses on poverty and opportunity in America. (Full disclosure: Next Avenue and Chasing the Dream are partners.) Each video features New Yorkers supporting themselves and their families in what the Chasing the Dream folks call “jobs that are often overlooked.”

The other three people featured: Nadir Samara, who quit his Philadelphia corporate insurance job to become a Brooklyn dog walker and hopes to start a film production company; bike courier Daniel Rodriguez, who gives his mother half of what he earns ($11 an hour plus tips) and Egyptian street cart vendor Walid Abdelwahab, who needed to bring in vendor defenders — organizers of The Street Vendor Project — just to maintain his piece of the sidewalk to make a living and support his three kids and wife.

You can watch the videos online at the Chasing the Dream site, and I hope you will. I did, and also saw them at a Chasing the Dream screening at Tumblr headquarters Wednesday night, which was followed by a fascinating panel discussion on chasing the American Dream, everyday hustles and the gig economy.

The Challenges of Everyday Hustles

The panel’s experts explained how tough making a living can be, especially for people in their 50s and 60s.

“The challenges for people in their 50s and 60s are intense,” said panelist Tamara Draut, vice president of policy and research at Demos, a public policy organization trying to reduce political and economic inequality, and author of Sleeping Giant: How America’s New Working Class Will Transform America. “There’s a lot of age discrimination in the workplace and the ability to combat that is at the lowest level since the Civil Rights Act.”

Consequently, many find themselves forced into taking gig economy jobs. But…

“The gig economy is a double-edged sword,” Draut said. “The big plus is flexibility; you work when you want to. But the downsides are that middlemen like Uber are making a lot of money by classifying drivers as independent contractors and not providing health benefits or paying into Medicare or Social Security for them. And you don’t qualify for unemployment insurance if you’re an independent contractor, or have a retirement plan from your employer.”

A Better Balance

Draut added: “We need to figure out a way to provide a better balance — freedom and flexibility along with stability and protection for workers.” And for people over 50, Draut said, “We have to figure out a way to get back to the idea that everybody who needs a job in America should be able to have one and be able to work as long as they want to.”

Julia Jean-Francois, co-director of the Center for Family Life, a New York City social services organization, wants to see individuals chasing the American Dream learn more about “how to construct a business they can control the terms of, so they understand what the contract is between them and their purchasers.” Her group’s co-op business development program offers hands-on support to do this.

Wealth Building for a Better Future

It’s about developing your business as an asset, said Jean-Francois. “Then you can put a value on it and sell it and your money is working for you,” she added. “Wealth building is where it’s at, so you have an asset to support you when you’re no longer strong enough or able to work or so you can pass it on to your children.”

Until then, says Kole in her Everyday Hustle video: “I’m just making it work, one way or the other.”

This story is part of our partnership with Next Avenue. Next Avenue is public media’s first and only national journalism service for America’s booming older population. Their daily content delivers vital ideas, context and perspectives on issues that matter most as we age.