The American Dream can be defined in many different ways by many different people. Similar to our Financial Independence question that I posted in April, I am curious what those of you in the personal finance community (and, quite frankly, those outside of it as well) think happened to the American Dream. Is it still alive and well, and can it still be “achieved”?
If you do a Google search for “Is the American Dream dead”, the results aren’t pretty.
For example, Richard Eskow writes that the American Dream is dead because people “can’t get ahead financially” and that living debt-free is only for the rich.
Researcher Gregory Clark believes that the American Dream has always been an illusion, and that “Blindly pursuing that dream now will only lead to a future with dire social challenges”.
Amazingly, the USA Today put a price tag on what the American Dream supposedly costs. The number? $130,357. And there ya have it, it’s as simple as that. Apparently, if you don’t have $130 Gs, the American Dream is not for you. How stupendously simple.
Is there any validity to this pessimism? First, we need to determine what the American Dream actually is. Naturally, most definitions are different.
Is the American Dream the ability to start a family, buy some property and live in a nice comfortable home? Maybe it is the freedom to choose your own path in life, shape your future in your own unique way and set forth down a path that is truly yours and tailored to your individual wants and desires.
If we take our cues from society, the norm in life can be roughly distilled down to something along the lines of this: earn a college degree, get married, buy a house in the suburbs, have a few kids, retire by 65 and live out the rest of your life like normal Americans.
Is this the American Dream? What if you want something different?
According to Wikipedia, the American Dream is thusly defined: “The American Dream is a national ethos of the United States, a set of ideals in which freedom includes the opportunity for prosperity and success, and an upward social mobility for the family and children, achieved through hard work in a society with few barriers“.
To be honest, I fully expected to disagree with the Wikipedia definition of the American Dream before I had read it. But truthfully, I think that definition is spot on. The American Dream, to me, is the ability to take charge of your life in a society that supports and encourages personal growth.
It means that the only thing standing between us and our ultimate goal of happiness is the strength of our determination to see it through. Challenges and tribulations along the way only make the end that much sweeter.
Using the Wikipedia definition, which is one that I happen to whole-heartedly agree with, there is simply no basis for the American Dream pessimism that we see from mainstream financial content factories.
People’s incomes will always differ. We will all drive different cars, work different jobs, live in different sized homes and accumulate different amounts of debt. Despite the personal choices that we make for our lives, the opportunity for something better will always be there. This opportunity is the dream!
My wife and I are not living our lives the normal way. We have no plans to have children. We do not anticipate working past 2018 and we have no particular desire to move out into a big home in the suburbs and endure the torturous commute to an office for the next 30 years. And that is okay.
This is our dream. This is us, just two peas in a huge world-wide pod, shaping our future in the way that works the best for us. Even though we are moving against the grain of “normal” society, we are taking advantage of the American Dream to make it happen. We are working hard and taking charge.
It’s alive! It’s alive!
I believe the American Dream is alive and well in the United States. Contrary to a CNN poll that found 59% of those polled believe the American Dream is impossible to achieve, the fact remains that the American Dream itself essentially speaks to personal determination, and nobody can take that away from us.
If one believes the American Dream to revolve around material possessions, or raises at work, or cars as nice as their neighbors, then it might seem like The Dream is impossible to achieve. But in truth, The Dream is not about stuff.
If someone is not living what they believe the American Dream to be, that does not necessarily mean that the American Dream is impossible to achieve.
Remember that we cannot “achieve” The Dream as if it were a finish line, and crossing that line means that we have accomplished this or that, amassed X amount of wealth or paid off X amount of debt. The Dream is not a “thing” that we get and, therefore, it cannot be “bought” as postulated by the silly USA Today article from above.
Instead, The Dream is a process.
The reality of living in the United States of America is actually quite encouraging. The very large majority of us have plenty of opportunities to succeed and build the life that we want. Some of us take those opportunities and make the best of them. Others don’t. The impact can be amazingly severe, but the impact of our decisions does not kill off the American Dream.
The sheer number of rags to riches stories in this country and from around the world helps to prove how powerful our motivations are in building the lives that we want to live.
Like Ursula Burns, who grew up in low-income housing projects in New York and is now the head of Xerox, or Oprah Winfrey who wore dresses made out of potato sacks and widely known to have been abused as a child is now one of the richest people in the world, or Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling who lived on welfare and is now worth in the neighborhood of a billion.
Surely, we all won’t get to be quite as rich as these folks, but determination is what separates Burns, Winfrey, Rowling, and so many others, from the rest of the pack. They could just as easily have chalked up their circumstances to a series of misfortunes and settled into a lonely life of frustration and misery. Oh well, The Dream is dead.
They didn’t. If you want the American Dream bad enough, you can have it. We all can. Just reach out and take it…I promise, it won’t bite.
What say you? How do you define the American Dream, and do you believe it is still alive?
Steve is a 38-year-old early retiree who writes about the intersection of happiness and financial independence. Steve is a regular contributor to MarketWatch, CNBC, and The Ladders. He lives full-time in his 30′ Airstream Classic and travels the country with his wife Courtney and two rescued dogs.