Wednesday marked the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. People might debate whether King’s “dream” has materialized truly in today’s society, but at the very least, a majority of Americans have more freedoms today than they or their ancestors enjoyed in the years leading up to the famous march to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963.
King’s dream was one of racial harmony and equality for the citizens of the U.S. It’s a noble and noteworthy dream to have, especially in light of what others might think of the anniversary.
But I wonder if King would have the same dream today? I’d argue that his dream would have evolved to one that is already a desire among most living in the U.S. It’s the dream of attaining the American Dream—the ability to achieve prosperity and, perhaps, upward mobility through hard work.
Unfortunately, the path to the American Dream is not the same as it was 50 years ago. Even in the face of racism and segregation, black Americans found that path more easily back then—leading thousands to leave their homes in the rural South to factories in the Northeast, Midwest, and West. Poor white Southerners often followed a similar path. These manufacturing jobs created an opportunity for workers to buy a home, start a family, and prepare an easier path for their children to achieve more than they did—which often meant going to college.
Today that path still might lead to manufacturing plants, but these companies are not welcoming people with open arms. They want workers with the specific skill set and soft skills to excel on the shop floor without someone constantly supervising their every move. On the other side of the equation, many aren’t interested in manufacturing jobs because they simply don’t pay what people expect.
Manufacturing is no longer able to provide a path to prosperity for the undereducated and unskilled. It is no longer a safety net for those that don’t cut it in other areas of the U.S. economy.
The path to the dream is education. Most confuse this with a college education, which explains why everyone thinks students need a degree from a traditional four-year school to attain a good job. No, education can mean advanced training attained through a two-year community college or through an apprenticeship. In short, you will earn what you learn.
King may not have been totally satisfied at where the U.S. economy has ended up, but that doesn’t mean we have to stop the effort to help all Americans achieve a more prosperous life. That’s what continuous improvement is all about, right?