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An crisis like the one our nation is currently going through can make us examine our heritage, our values and our perceptions to try and find an anchor in uncertain times.  Someone who does that for a living is John Zogby, the well known pollster who heads up Zogby International.  He has recently written a book called The Way We’ll Be: The Zogby Report on the Transformation of the American Dream,, which takes an insightful look at how we’ve changed as a people over the last 20-30 years.  He uses the results of his many surveys to shows us how our attitudes have been shifting, trends which were established well before the current troubles began.

John Zogby is challenging the idea that our greatest hour is behind us. Leaving behind the realm of politics – though that does play a factor – Zogby questions the nay-sayers, supporting his views with over two decades of data he has collected regarding the evolution of American consciousness.  His observations show how the transformation of American culture is taking place and where it might lead in the future.

Zogby is a master at asking questions that probe the core of the American psyche and at identifying key groups who signify the changes taking place in our society.  Two groups that he uncovered and discusses at length are what he calls the First Globals and the Secular Spiritualists.

Zogby’s research into the generation he terms the ‘First Globals’ – the 18 – 29 year olds who are poised to be tomorrow’s leaders. While current thinking may have you believing the worst, Zogby goes to tireless lengths to disprove those harmful stereotypes, instead replacing them with a description that is wholly optimistic, and thought-provoking.

As he writes in his book, the First Globals are the “most outward-looking and accepting generation in American history.” They are more likely to live in another country during their lives. They demand transparency in government and business. They are more aware of the damage we are doing to the environment, and taking steps to be more eco-concious. This is not the jaded teenager of earlier times, but the new global citizen. The first generation to be raised with the internet, they have access to the world and to see firsthand that someone who lives on the other side of the world is not actually so different.

Interview with John Zogby

Another group that Zogby identifies are the secular spiritualists.  This is a growing segment of Americans who are comprised of multiple groups.  First are the 27% of Americans who have been disenfranchised:  downsized, outsourced, eliminated from the American dream.  The other group are those 9-10 million Americans who have made it, but feel they have too much and are not being fulfilled by the things they own.  Finally, there are the Baby Boomer who are going to redefine retirement and old age in a more activist way.  As Zogby said, in an article for Forbes magazine:

“. . . as I probed deeper, I found a renewed spirit, a survival instinct, a readjustment of life’s expectations and a redefinition of the American dream. I have found for years now that more Americans say the American Dream has more to do with spiritual fulfillment and leading a genuine and honest life than with the attainment of material things.”

Secular spiritualists are looking to simplify their lives and fill them with meaning, rather than things.  This could be the most profound trend that Zogby has teased out of his polls.  It could have long term ramifications for how we define the American dream as well as what and how much we’ll consume.

Amid the doom and gloom of today, Zogby paints a surprisingly upbeat picture of the American consciousness, albeit a different one from eras past.  He sees a long term, emerging concern for transparency an authenticity, as well as a need to be more responsible on a personal level, to demand and affect change in our relations with other people, other countries, and the planet.  These values are beginning to permeate every corner of our society.

Zogby has taken a good hard look (20 years of it!) at who we were, are, and hope to be. He has determined that America is still an optimistic and forward looking nation, but is seeing things with a new lens.   As shown in Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, hope can be a powerful thing, an idea with a force of its own. A thing worth fighting for. The election results showed that the First Globals and Secular Spiritualists were a powerful combination in the dramatic mandatte for change that was accorded Mr. Obama.

As he ably demonstrates, beneath all the poll numbers (which we Americans are so fascinated with), there is a new and more hopeful American dream in gestation.

From its initial beginnings as a modest gathering place for Harvard students,Facebook has blossomed into a worldwide social networking phenomena with over 175 million active users. But what started as a ‘student only’ community has evolved into a legitimate social media enterprise, and one with a mission. With the addition of the ‘Causes’ application, Facebook has made it clear – it doesn’t just want to represent the world, it wants to change it.

‘Causes’ has an ambitious agenda, and an inspiring mission statement, to “provide the tools so that any Facebook user can leverage their network of real friends to effect positive change.” The causes featured are as varied as the user base – from animal rights to gun control, same-sex marriage to cancer awareness. Each cause has its own page, monitored by an administrator, where members can join discussion forums, post updates and add links to relevant videos and articles.

But what truly differentiates Causes is the ability of users to recruit from their pool of friends, and to donate directly to the organization. A tally on each Cause page counts the members, as well as the amounts donated, and recognizes the individuals who have contributed on their ‘Hall of Fame’.

The genesis of Causes can be traced to two distinct elements. In recent years, there has been growing public disillusionment about the use of mass media marketing initiatives by non-profit groups to promote their mission to potential supporters. Before the internet became mainstream, organizations had few options outside of these traditional advertising methods to reach the general public. Large-scale campaigns left many feeling as if their contributions were being diverted away from the people who needed them and into the coffers of network television and billboard advertisers.

Secondly, Facebook noted the surging influence of user-created groups – which can be created by anyone, for anything. While groups can be founded around something as mundane as a shared love of bleu cheese, some saw an opportunity to connect with like-minded individuals and foster change, one friend at a time.

One notable group, the April 6 Youth Movement (covered in WIRED magazine’s October 2008 issue) was founded by Egyptian students and political activists demanding the end of widespread governmental corruption. Members used the group to organize rallies and share information, in the process creating a folk hero of group founder Ahmed Maher, raising the ire of the Egyptian police force, and bringing worldwide focus on the fledgling movement.

This small group of students, in finding a place where their voices could be heard, stumbled upon a new use for social networking – to put the power for change back into the hands of the individuals, or ‘equal opportunity activism’ as described by the mission statement. Causes has built upon that ideal, and given the growing interest, this seems to be only the beginning. Facebook has changed the way we interact, and now it is changing the way we make a difference.

With the recent Congressional approval of President Obama’s $787 billion economic stimulus package, one nearly extinct symbol of our American expansion is hoping to make a comeback – the locomotive. But this isn’t your great grandfather’s train travel. ‘Fast Rail’ supporters got an $8 billion dollar boost, to be directed towards the development of six high-speed corridors throughout the country.

At first glance, this may seem an odd addition to the new President’s agenda, but with a struggling auto industry, overcrowded skies, and the growing interest in developing more ecologically sound solutions, high speed rail might be just the ticket.

While the development of the railroads played a key role in the settlement of the American West, the overwhelming popularity of air travel all but derailed the passenger train as America’s primary mode of transportation.  Still moderately popular in the Northeast, where urban population centers are far more dense, train travel in the West is limited mainly to sightseeing excursions, and hauling freight.

For a country that prides itself on innovative solutions, we are lagging far behind many other nations in developing greener, more efficient transportation. Travelers and commuters in Europe and Asia have been enjoying the benefits of high-speed rail service for decades, with the increase in ridership due in no small part to large government-imposed taxes on foreign oil.

Despite the nation’s uproar over last summer’s gas price hikes and the decline in miles driven by American motorists in the ensuing months, it’s clear that it will take considerable work to get Americans out of their cars, and into Amtrak’s. So, why should we care?  Why should we give up the convenience of air travel and the comfort and privacy of our automobiles?

Proponents of fast rail cite lower passenger costs, reducing our reliance on oil, travel times that are comparable to air travel, and transportation options in the event of extreme weather events as just a few of the obvious benefits of rail service. But this focus on further development of our infrastructure also means new jobs. And with unemployment rates skyrocketing to their highest levels in decades, this could mean the difference between a pay check and a welfare check for many American families.

Unfortunately, building a high-speed rail network is not without its share of setbacks, or opponents. Even fast rail supporters will agree that the $8 billion cannot begin to cover the costs we will incur in the building of infrastructure to handle the new systems. Ongoing government subsidies will be required, at least for the foreseeable future.  Also there is the problem of space: we have a lot of it, a lot of ground to cover and limited resources to work with. The current plan only covers corridors in the most densely populated areas – namely the East and West coasts, with Texas and Illinois being the hubs for smaller service areas.

There is a lot to consider in Obama’s fast rail proposal, and with California being the only state that has committed to building a new system, there are still a lot of people to win over.

California Proposed Fast Rail Video

It is doubtful we will ever see a return of the romance Americans once had with rail travel.  But if politicians and engineers can work together to develop a fast, efficient system, it may go a long way toward convincing a questioning public to resume at least a comfortable friendship with the train.

Once I built a railroad, made it run,
Made it race against time;
Once I build a railroad — now it’s done.
Brother, can you spare a dime?

Once I built a tower to the sun,
Brick and rivet and lime;
Once I build a tower — now it’s done.
Brother, can you spare a dime?

Partial lyrics from “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?”
Words & Music by E.Y. Harburg & Jay Gorney
Recorded by Bing Crosby, 1932

I don’t know about you, but I’m starting to feel as if the words “GLOBAL ECONOMIC CRISIS” have been stenciled into the backs of my eyelids. Everywhere you turn these days, someone is weighing in on the seemingly unending financial meltdown. CNN has non-stop coverage, MSNBC talk show hosts are chattering on. And CNBC gives you continuous, down tick by down tick commentary on the stock market collapse. It’s enough to make you afraid to turn on your televisions.

The value of assets worldwide are plummeting; people are losing their homes, jobs are vanishing, and college students are having to wonder how they will pay next year’s tuition.  To put it in the most polite terms possible, we are in a pickle. No matter how much money you have in the bank, it is impossible not to feel nervous – even  terrified – by the state of the world’s economy.  The specter of another Great Depression seems to stalk every conversation these days.

Brother can you spare a dime? Tom Waits

However, even in the midst of all this strum and drag, we should remember that the seeds of recovery and even greater economic achievements are often sown in the midst of financial calamity.  In the March issue of WIRED magazine, Creative Director Scott Dadich had this to say:

“Constraint offers an unparalleled opportunity for growth and innovation. Given fewer resources, you have to make better decisions.”

Though he wrote the article about product design under constraint, Dadich believes that there is a greater lesson we could be heeding, that this is “our hour of opportunity.”  The next generation of successful and innovative businesses will be born during this period of diminishing wealth and expectations of wealth. As Dadich indicates, if we can see the possibilities, instead of the limitations, we might just emerge from the current crisis faster and stronger than before.

There is plenty of precedent for his optimism.  In the early 1930′s, the Great Depression devastated this country. Deflation forced the collapse of prices and wages, businesses tanked, and banks failed. Yet, in the years following, entrepreneurs would emerge that would go on to change the face of the world.  Here are two notable examples.

After a brief career as a Red Cross ambulance driver, and his share of failed ventures, Walt Disney created a character based upon a pet mouse he had adopted. Steamboat Willie, the first cartoon featuring Mickey Mouse, was released in 1928, becoming an instant success. Feature-length animated features followed, cementing the Disney brand into the American psyche.

On July 17, 1955 Disneyland, calling itself ‘The Happiest Place on Earth,’ opened its doors, ushering in a new era of family entertainment. Today, the park that Walt built is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, and has grown to include parks in France, Japan and China.

With a recipe he purchased from a San Antonio restaurant for $100, C.E. Doolin started Frito Corporation in 1932. From humble beginnings (Doolin first began selling Fritos corn chips from his Model T Ford) what is now Frito-Lay is the leading snack manufacturer in America. Frito-Lay is also an industry leader in developing more environmentally-friendly production methods.

These examples – and there are many more – can serve as inspiration for our times.  We may view the future now with trepidation.  In the midst of what was certainly America’s greatest national catastrophe – the Great Depression – few saw that America’s greatest era lay just a few years hence.  Like Disney and Doolin, we must first find hope and opportunities for greater deeds will follow.  The pillars of our old economy may have crumbled, but we will build new towers to the sun.  The real lesson of the Great Depression is that we must never surrender our optimism.

After all, optimism grows more powerful and abundant with use, and costs nothing – not even a dime.