In a post written almost nine years ago, I asked for your feedback on the validity of the so-called American Dream. That was a few years into the Tea Party movement and the economic recovery after the disastrous recession and financial meltdown of 2008-09.
Obama was President, Trump was yet to storm into our lives, and a worldwide Covid-type infection was only the stuff of Outbreak, a 1995 Dustin Hoffman movie.
At that point, a CNN poll had shown more than half of the adults sampled believed hard work and perseverance could lead to personal economic stability and personal happiness. I remember the comments readers attached to that post were not as positive; the "dream" was not seen as a viable possibility for many of our fellow citizens.
The concentration of wealth among a smaller and smaller group of the top tier Americans and the decline or stagnation of middle and lower-class wages, financial stability, and upward mobility seemed to say, "this dream is really not for you."
Fast forward to today, and I am surprised. Several studies over the last few years show more robust than expected support for the ability to achieve that status. 43% of those polled believe the traditional Dream is still possible. Yes, that number has slipped since the Covid shutdown experience, but more than four out of ten feeling positive startle me.
Most surprising are the numbers that indicate a fair number of younger adults are more confident than their elders in their path to whatever they define as success. From what I have been reading, these folks are the ones who have suffered the most in the aftermath of Covid.
Owning a house anytime soon is a significant hurdle. The tech industry is shedding jobs like a herd of buffalo sluffing off their winter coats. The rental and living cost increases are outpacing any growth these young people may enjoy.
Yet, their hope for the future, their abilities, and the power of perseverance remain potent forces. Maybe what the "dream" means has changed. Maybe their sights are set on different ways of confirming success than their elders.
The effects of climate change and all that might mean, the realization that buying stuff doesn't equal happiness or a personal path that defines success differently than older generations, is in play. Is it likely "The American Dream" of these people is a reboot of an old idea, more in tune with our place and time?
As a retired person, sometimes I feel I no longer have much "skin in the game." I am not in the same place, mentally and economically, as those striving for a better future. I don't want to move up the ladder, increase my financial clout, buy and spend more, or work harder to achieve that elusive dream.
What I just said doesn't mean I don't care, just the opposite. Not being directly involved in the day-to-day struggles gives me more time to think about where we are heading. It allows me to see the growing inequity creating a yawning gap between those at the top of the ladder and those on the rungs below them (and those who can't even get on the ladder).
If the American Dream I was raised believing was possible for all is now dead or no longer attainable by the majority, what does that mean for all of us? How will that perception change our daily life and our future? If that specific hope is no longer alive, what is taking its place?
Retirement is when many of us become more involved with our community, volunteerism, and family or see a wrong and try to do something about it. What we may be facing is the rules of the game are changing. The fundamental glue that holds us together may be a new formula we haven't fully grasped.
What brought this subject back to mind was a book I just finished: "The Day The World Stopped Shopping," by J.B. MacKinnon. The author argues that a culture built on constantly increasing consumption has no future. While this post is not the place to debate his conclusions, his thoughts made me wonder whether younger generations are adapting some of their "dreams" based on his points.
Hi, Bob, this is Chris. I remember when our kids were young, thinking that the American Dream for them would be similar to what it was for spouse and me, not more? I remember thinking if they could get an education, meaningful work, buy a home, have a family, be able to have some extras like more than one car, pets, go on vacations, they would have good lives. I know I am speaking from a position of privilege, and recognize not everyone has the same starting point.ReplyDelete
I know Betty and I assumed our daughters would achieve their dreams and they would look a lot like ours.Delete
They have forged their own paths and definitions of success. Both are happy with their choices, and that is the "dream" for us.
I think the American dream is alive and well. I think there are just less people willing to put in the work to achieve that dream. The American dream has probably evolved over the years for each generation. The old dream of having 1000 sq ft house and a nice TV in the living room has evolved to wanting a 2500 sq ft house with a TV in every room. The dream of having one car in the drive has changed to having three. I think the dream is alive, it has just expanded a little.ReplyDelete
My view is that the dream is changing for younger generations. The " two cars in the garage, white pickett fence" ideal was ours.Delete
Younger people are more likely to consider limitations placed on them by climate change, economic instabilities, or events like Covid.
I believe many of these folks are refining what qualifies as success and it is less materially oriented.
The present/future is truly a conundrum. I see/hear some 20 somethings saying "I will never have X. It's just not possible anymore". At the same time I'm watching several newlywed couples doing it. College on saved cash, career pursued, home purchase with good down payment. Is it drive? Commitment? Circumstance? Some of these "kids" have parental $ help while others do not.ReplyDelete
What I know for sure? When first married, we lived on 2 minimum wage jobs and paid cash for my year of college still needed to begin my career and we worked our way up from there. We had zero $ help. That is absolutely impossible now in this town with rent prices and college prices and current minimum wage.
I have questions and no answers. What i know for sure? I'm so grateful to be my age and have no wish to be in my 20s or 30s trying to get where I am now in the future.
As I noted to Mitch in the comment above, I am encouraged by the expansion of what the "American Dream" can look like.Delete
For many that path is one we seniors recognize. While there are more serious obstacles in the way, it remains possible to achieve a certain type of that traditional success, albeit with limitations.
For others, that dream may not include the necessity of a house purchase, two cars, or even children. This approach is less about things and more about personal satisfaction whatever that looks like.
The monolithic definition seems to be showing cracks around the edges. I see that as good.
I have never believed the American Dream was about stuff. The American Dream is about choices. We brought up our children the way my husband was raised- learn, use your brain, make a base and then do what you choose after that base is established.ReplyDelete
IMO- Our American dream was taken off course with the rise of debt- credit cards, school loans, large mortgages, small business loans….Elli hit it. They saved and worked two jobs to push for what they wanted. I did the same. Most of my friends wrote endless essays to get merit aide. My husband joined the Army. My son in law’s family lives, happily, on a small farm. There are many who just think they can spend their way up- but that is not the actual American dream. Fortunately, our kids never went down that road.
Our immigrant friends save for A house, and move into a “good school” neighborhood. Lots of people in the house. Working small jobs, side hustles. Parents and grandparents giving their grands/children access to a good base of food, clean water, shelter, very basic education supplemented at home, and CHOICES.
American dream is alive and well.
Yes, it is. The parameters have changed and what it means is much more individualistic. But the ability to strive for what satisfies you remains, like no other place on earth.Delete
Everything you want may not be possible, but no one is telling you to stop dreaming and working.
What a thought-provoking post Bob. I have noticed that as people get older, many become more cynical about life. Maybe, as you pointed out, it is because the American Dream is not the same as when we were young. I find it hopeful that, despite the changes in our world, the younger generations are creating their own version of the American Dream. But you are right...maybe we should have a new name for it. The New American Vision???ReplyDelete
A commonly shared name is good for creating a sense of community and purpose. I like your "vision" suggestion because it implies an invidual interpretation of the possibilities.Delete
Quick...copyright it !!
If I were a counselor and had a client who was burned out from chasing the American Dream, I would ask the following questions: Why do you keep striving? What's the bottom line here? Is chasing the American Dream making your life harder than it needs to be? When will you get off the success/achievement treadmill? What have you sacrificed to show the world your status and success? I would tell him that the federal prisons, divorce courts, and the psychiatrist's offices are filled with people who will tell you that they achieved the so-called American Dream, but still wound up unfulfilled and asking "Is that all there is?"ReplyDelete
The fairy tale American Dream story tells us that anyone in the United States, no matter the color of your skin or where you came from can achieve success through hard work, make a lot of money, buy lots of stuff--the prosperity gospel. That's a big lie, but just one of many lies Americans believe. Motivational speakers talk so favorably about the American Dream. They don't want you to know that success has side effects and tradeoffs. For example, sixty hour work weeks are not sustainable, often causing divorce and physical problems. The big home in a suburb can't compensate for those problems.
Those desperately trying to achieve the American Dream remind me of the dog races where the dogs are trying to catch mechanical rabbits, but can't catch them. There is nothing tangible about the American Dream. It is an illusion wrapped in mythology and reflects cultural indoctrination, especially materialism. My favorite comedian, George Carlin, said "They call it the American Dream because you have to be sleep to believe it."
I would tell my above client to forget the American Dream. Instead, really get to know yourself so you can comfortably set your own meaningful goals based on your values. Let your dreams flow from that, avoiding the large financial debt and excessive stress resulting from American Dream conformity. That has been one of my paths to fulfillment.
I agree with your assessment, Jack. To be a viable dream it must be a personal dream, one based on each person's decisions.Delete
It should be built around what is an acceptible work-life balance, the place of things and experiences, family concerns, and the understanding that the only person judging that dream is the person having it.
Thanks for your forceful thoughts, Jack.
You and commenters all raise some important points. "Success" used to have a narrowly defined parameter. Those who opted out of that path to success were not always seen as following their own dream. On the contrary, they were criticized or dismissed. It seems to me that young people today are defining for themselves what success means to them. It reminds me of the 60s and early 70s, when so many young people refused to accept the older generation's definition for success.ReplyDelete
In many ways, I see young people wanting more balance in their lives -- time for family and friends and other pursuits, things that older generations gave up in the name of success. In any event, as you say, we have passed the torch. It is their world now to define and engage with. It will be interesting to see what they come up with.
The Boomer definition of success is no longer relevant. I welcome a change in what many strive for. You used the work, balance, which should be the driving force.ReplyDelete
A society that begins to understand happiness has little to do with things is better off, for all of us.
Sure, there will always be folks who believe he with the most toys wins. I trust they will be in the minority.
Great topic. I heard ... somewhere ... recently, someone asked the question: In the history of the U. S., when was the best time for a Black person to aspire to go to college? The answer: Right now in 2023. So I think the America Dream is more alive than ever, although I agree the dream itself is a little different from what it was when we were kids. Young people today (not all of them, but most of them) think more about community, the environment . . . and responsible consumption, not conspicuous consumption.ReplyDelete
The gradual shift away from conspicuous consumption will throw our economy into a spin for awhile, but the longterm benefit to the planet are worth the shift. I am encouraged by the shift in priorities by younger generations.Delete
I think the American Dream has changed. My grown children have different pursuits. Not sure whether that's because they realize they may not be able to achieve what we did, or that they have found contentment elsewhere.ReplyDelete
I guess there is no logical reason why aspirational goals shouldn't change over time. I fully support anyone finding contentment in a way that is different from ours.Delete