American Dream redefined: Success and upward mobility

Staff photo by Maayan Schechter
Arvind and Sheluni Patel, 19, run the K&M Food Mart in Graniteville together. Sheluni is a second-generation American, working and going to school full-time so her parents can have better lives, Sheluni said.
Staff photo by Maayan Schechter Arvind and Sheluni Patel, 19, run the K&M Food Mart in Graniteville together. Sheluni is a second-generation American, working and going to school full-time so her parents can have better lives, Sheluni said.

Editor's note: The American Dream is a national ethos of the United States, and at its heart is the desire for prosperity and success. But the American Dream is changing. The Aiken Standard looks at why that is in a four-part series continuing today.

The notion of having a day off likely seems abnormal to USC Aiken sophomore Sheluni Patel, 19.

“I'm a second-generation American,” Patel said. “I started out with 18 credit hours this semester, but I dropped it to 15, still a full-time student. Before school started, I was working two jobs, taking an online math class and working here (K&M Food Mart in Graniteville).”

While the process of reopening K&M Food Mart began in May, Patel and her parents have worked tireless days, stocking the shelves, calling in orders and making sure the day-to-day business runs smoothly. Patel recently gave sole custody of the store to her parents, but helps run almost every entity of the business while still going to college.

“It's different, but it's a good different from running motels like my parents used to do,” Patel said. “Years were going by and opening this store was something we needed to do. The American Dream is moving up the ladder, so it was time for us to move up the ladder as well.”

Patel's mother worked for a camera company and her father worked in a makeup factory before running various motels. Patel said due to a decline in the motel market, her family wanted to do something different, and gas stations are entities needed year round.

“It's stressful, and it's hard,” Patel said. “I don't really have a life and not a lot of time to myself. It can get stressful. But my parents have always told me to study hard and work hard because they say they want me to have a better life than they did. They told me that they wouldn't want me to have to work in a motel for my whole life, and working hard pays off. I do believe in the American Dream. If you work hard, you will eventually get to the top.”

The median annual household income of someone born second-generation to immigrant parents is substantially higher than immigrants themselves, according to the Pew Center.

Upward mobility and the American Dream

Many move to the U.S. for better lives – the “American Dream” – and the idea of upward mobility. The Dream, according to some, may be a lost thought from decades before when, after graduation, many started in low-paying jobs at corporations, working their way up the corporate ladder and retiring by age 60.

Dr. Michael Ritchie, Security Federal Bank professor at USC Aiken, worked in construction for two years during the economic downturn, after graduating from Clemson University in 1976, before getting into the banking industry.

“Getting into the banking industry was a freak accident,” Ritchie said. “I met someone that knew someone that worked in a bank. It was fun, I had a great time there. I went back though and got my MBA at Augusta College and went to school at night from 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. for three years. I had this great professor, Dr. Holloman, who had this Shakespearean voice. He told me one day to come into his office and said that I really seemed to enjoy academics. He asked me if I ever considered teaching at the college level.”

Now a professor at USCA, Ritchie tells his students that in order to get the jobs they may want, they need the training, the skill sets and the ability to communicate with a future boss that can help them meet their goals and make them money. Ritchie said he and his wife continually talk about their first jobs and how they had the lowest pay on the planet.

“Everyone back then got a job, but the pay was low,” Ritchie said. “Not everyone gets a job now, but the pay is higher. You have to show your stripes. The first year they say we need employees and then to promote you, you have to show me you can make me money. You have to come in early, stay late and do the work. Forty years ago, you worked and moved up and the average person changed jobs maybe every four years. In my opinion, they groomed you and gave you incentives to stay and hang out. Now a days, they don't do that anymore.”

More than two million college-age students 20 to 24 are currently unemployed, lasting almost 27 weeks, according to the U.S. Department of Labor 2012 data. More than two million 25 to 34-year olds have an average duration of unemployment at 37 weeks. More than one million individuals 55 to 64 have an average duration of almost 52 weeks, the highest duration of any age group. On average, 396,000 individuals 65 years or older are unemployed at an average duration of 46 weeks.

In Aiken County, about 84 percent of the population has a high school diploma, according to the U.S. Census data. Only about 24 percent of the population has a bachelor's degree or higher. The household median income in Aiken County is about $45,000 and almost 19 percent of the population lives below the poverty level.

The fast climb does not always equate to success

When Gordon Gekko teamed up with Bud Fox, a Wall Street stockbroker in the '90s classic “Wall Street,” Fox's desire to get to the top and become successful was met with a life of swift business deals, fast money and inside information to pursue a good deal. While the movie is fictional, the notion of working quickly to get to the top is misleading to many of the younger generation.

“There is this 'get it out, get it fast' notion,” Ritchie said. “It can leave younger people in financial ruin. We've created this philosophy of the younger generation to want it now, and I want to be the vice president today, and I want that house and the BMW.”

Jones said the attitude of the younger generation wanting opportunities quicker with a higher salary is something that has been around for a long time.

“It will always probably be around,” Jones said. “You know, there comes a time when new, younger employees get to the real world and discover what it is really like. They begin to learn about the job and gain the people skills that they need to be successful within that organization. Sometimes, there will be the case of a younger employee put into a supervisor position over older employees.”

The median tenure at a job for those 50-64 and 65 years or older is 10.3 years, the highest median years of tenure of any ages, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Twenty to 24-year-olds tend to stay with jobs a little more than one year.

“What's happened is the next position used to be at the same company you started with,” Corey Feraldi, director of career services of USCA, said. “You worked your way up through one company, and now that's not the case. Students stay in their first job less than three years. They move to different places and areas (instead of working) for the same company and moving up. The first position matters. The upward mobility will come with experience.”

Maayan Schechter is the city beat reporter with Aiken Standard and started with the paper in July. She has a degree in mass communications-journalism from the University of North Carolina Asheville.

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