What has the American Dream become?

Published June 22, 2015   Posted in How to Think

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”?

What happened to the American Dream?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?

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15 responses to “What has the American Dream become?”

  1. You probably already know where we stand on this. 😉 Have we been able to live the American dream? Absolutely. But does that mean that everybody has access to it equally? We don’t think so. We highly recommend two really well researched books on the subject. First is Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich which is about the huge obstacles low-wage earners face and the extra costs they have to pay in order to just get by, let alone get ahead. The second is The Divide by Matt Taibbi, which is a really compelling case study of the huge obstacles poor people face from terrible schools that don’t let their kids get ahead, to people taking advantage of low-wage workers, to, frankly, police harassment that cost people hundreds and thousands of dollars a year for non-criminal acts. It’s all pretty heartbreaking. We love the American dream, and just wish it was available to more people, but we think that more and more it’s available to an increasingly privileged few. And the saddest thing is that, if you’re in the group that is upwardly mobile, it’s nearly impossible to see the obstacles that others face, which makes it awfully hard for us as a society to decide to fix the problems!

  2. Stockbeard says:

    As “Our Next Life” stated above, I think the problem nowadays is in the unbalanced opportunities.

    I am well off financially, and I’m a foreigner who moved to the US, but I don’t feel like my family and myself symbolize the “American Dream”: when we moved here, we were already doing ok from a financial perspective, and living in the US just accelerates that (higher wages, lots of ways to save money for people who actually want to do it).

    But I don’t know today if someone starting from nothing can really make it big?

  3. Steve says:

    I think this is a good example of one of those questions that really depends on one’s own personal life experiences to truly answer (I plan on tackling this phenomenon in a subsequent posting). Personally, I have witnessed several examples of success stories in this nation – my dad being a good example. But, I’d also be kidding myself if I assumed that it wasn’t much tougher for some than for others. Clearly, it is.

    Thanks for your thoughts! 🙂

  4. This is thought provoking. I’ve never really taken time to personalize the American Dream. I’ve always just accepted the traditional “house, kids, job progression” definition, but I’m going to put some thought into it now. Totally agree that it’s unique to every one.

    • Steve says:

      Yeah, this is a very uniquely personal question, and everybody’s experiences will ultimately dictate what their stance is on this particular issue. I can be a pessimist on a lot of things, but when it comes to this one, I tend to be pretty heavily optimistic.

  5. Mrs SSC says:

    I think the issue with the American Dream is that many people think it is a right, and not something that you have to work for. Maybe that is why it seems unachievable. (wow – that is a really pessimistic thought for me!)

    • Steve says:

      I think that’s right. If people equate the American Dream to “material things” and believe that they have a “right” to the same things that their neighbor has, not only does that destroy – at least in my mind – the very notion of what the American Dream actually is, but it puts into place a cycle of “entitled expectations”, and that leads us down a road that isn’t paved too well.

      Thanks for your thoughts. 🙂

  6. The American dream is whatever life you create that you believe will give you the most joy and happiness. Hate kids and white picket fences but love traveling on your motorcycle and gardening… well as long as your life has those two things in it… you’ve got your American dream! Figuring out your American dream is the hardest part 🙂

  7. Jason says:

    I do think you are right the American dream is alive. However, American society has fundamentally defined it in a materialistic sense. The white-picket fence has now become MTV cribs and if you don’t reach it you are not a “success.” My students are told that if they don’t major in a STEM field they aren’t a success. What total bollocks. I have begun showing the beginnings of Dead Poets Society to really tell students what success is. And in two previous essays I published I also tried to outline it or at least how it has come to be different. It truly means different things to different people. Unfortunately, I think the homogenous materialism has pervaded the dream. Upward mobility is no longer enough.

    • Steve says:

      Jason – sadly, I think that you are exactly right. A lot of people DO define the American Dream by how much one “has”, and that is really unfortunate. It keeps people wanting more and more, and satisfaction with what you do have, like you alluded to, is never enough.

  8. Chris Muller says:

    I do think the American Dream is going to be different for everyone, but the average view of it has changed for sure. What used to be a good job/business owner, a home, kids, married, etc.. is now something different I believe. We’re becoming a society filled with greed and the need to get everything we want as fast (or faster) than we can. Everyone wants to be famous. People want to fall back into millions of dollars without doing any work. Does anyone NOT know who the Kardashians are? That’s sad. Those are our role models today. Make a sex tape, get a TV show, get famous, get paid. So I do think the conventional thought of the American Dream might be dying, but it’s up to people like us to help redefine it and keep it alive.

    • Steve says:

      I like that! It is up to us to keep the definition of American Dream to what it once was – the opportunity to succeed through hard work and determination. To many of us, that definition hasn’t changed. But to others, our society certainly has thrown a wrench into this equation, turning something positive into this “thing” to be used as a means to see how much crap we can acquire over a lifetime.

      Not cool, man! 🙂

      Thanks for reading, as always.

  9. Jaime says:

    I think the American Dream is whatever you want it to be. I think life is easy in the U.S. if you are of sound body, sound mind and are willing to work. My parents left Russia in the ’80s, then moved to Costa Rica, and then finally moved to the U.S. I’m a naturalized U.S. citizen and all that jazz.

    My mom even had a small business that she sold. She started hers in the ’90s and sold it in the mid-2000s. I do think debt and living beyond peoples means keep many people in debt and away from their dreams. My parents always made sure to stay out of debt. =)

    • Steve says:

      I like your definition, Jaime – the American Dream SHOULD BE whatever you want it to be. It’s a perfect way to think about this. Make it exactly what you want it to be!

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