Monday, May 8, 2017

The American Dream: origins and current thoughts on its possibility

Oh, the American Dream! The idea which has brought millions to the shores of this beautiful country. It is said to be a national value system of the United States which is a set of ideas for the freedom for the opportunity for prosperity and success. It is the upward social mobility for yourself and your children. It is the idea that all this could be achieved through hard work in a society with few barriers. The American Dream is rooted in the Declaration of Independence as it states “all men are created equal” with the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” What are the origins of the American Dream? What has changed? Is it really achievable today? Is it a dead dream? As I researched this topic, I realized what the American Dream means to me.

The term “American Dream” was first used by James Truslow Adams in his book, Epic of America (1931). He wrote “life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement” regardless of social class or circumstances of birth. In the 19th century, the idea that the United States was the place that wealth and prosperity wasn’t just for the landed gentry but for poorest citizens to achieve as well fueled the American Dream. With the gold rush of 1849, the California Dream of instant success also helped fuel the American Dream. In the 20th century, the American Dream became a dream of social order in which every person can be able to live up to his or her potential in which a house, cars, and wealth can be available to anyone willing to work hard for them. The American Dream has even be a central theme in American literature. For example, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) by Mark Twain, My Antonia (1918) by Willa Cather and The Great Gatsby (1925), which satirized the materialism of the American Dream, to name a few. Even in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman features the American Dream as a fruitless pursuit.

In a 2013 YouGov poll, 41% of respondents believed it was impossible for most to achieve the American Dream while 38% believe it was still possible for all to achieve the American Dream and 21% were unsure. Even when factored for race and gender, the majority still believed the Dream was possible. When factored for political affiliation, majority of Republicans believed the dream was still possible (55%) while the majority of Democrats believed the Dream was not possible (53%). With the majority of Americans believing the Dream was still possible, is the dream really dead? Most Americans believe the key to the American Dream is a college education. However, with the growing student loan debt crisis and shortages of entry level jobs for new graduates, the idea that a college education is the key is being undermined (Barlett & Steele, 2012). Homeownership is seen as another indicator of the American Dream. A status symbol separating the middle classes and the poor. However, with the push for homeownership as a symbol of success, many people will go broke in order to have the nice house like everyone else. According to author Mark Manson, “the sad truth is that fewer people today are getting ahead than before” despite their hard work or education. To further point that that a college education may be worth the cost. Mr. Manson believes that we have returned to “the feudal order where you’re born into your privilege (or lack thereof) and forced to just hope things don’t get any worse” (Manson, 2016). Economic mobility is lower in the US than in almost every other developed country.

You may ask what the point is. Is the American Dream dead or not? The idea of the American Dream has led to the belief system that hard work equals success and deserving great things while laziness equals failure and deserving nothing. This is similar to the Just World Hypothesis. That good things happen to good people; however bad things can happen to good people too. It’s just the world we live in. We don’t always get what we deserve: good or bad. The American Dream has led many to believe that they are only worth something based on what they achieved. Sound familiar? How many of us have heard someone brag that they got the latest and greatest gadget or purse or whatever status symbol may be in the style at the moment? How many of us have done the bragging as if it makes us better than the one who doesn’t have it yet? Is it really worth it to break the bank to have a certain gadget when you can’t feed yourself or have a decent roof over your head or a reliable car? It isn’t to me.

Researching this topic had me thinking about my American Dream. What do I wish to accomplish and is it because I want it or because society has led me to think I want it? When I was a teenager and later a young adult, I was dreamed of becoming a wife to a loving husband and a mother. And I accomplished that. I have a wonderful husband who is my whole world.  I cannot imagine life without him. While my road to motherhood has been rocky, I have been blessed with an amazing daughter. While I would love to have a career where I could make a difference in the world, I realize that that career may be different than the one I envisioned. My husband and I would like to buy our dream house one day and one day will come but it comes on our terms, in God’s timing. And not because society, family and friends try to tell us we are failures unless we are homeowners. I have family and friends who are homeowners and a few of them have honestly told us to take our time and buy a house we really want to live in because owning a house is a lot of work.

In conclusion, I believe the American Dream is deeply personal to each individual. Their motivation for what they want in life is found within them, not a collective dream we’re all supposed to have and work for. My American Dream is to live in relative peace. I want to cherish every moment I have with my husband and daughter. I want to treasure the time I am given with family and friends. I want to make a difference in my community, my country and my world if I can. I’m not interested in what others many think about what clothes I wear or don’t wear. I don’t care if you think my car isn’t new enough or if my phone is considered outdated. If it still works, I still use it. What is your American Dream?

Bartlett, Donald L. & Steele, James B (2012): The Betrayal of the American Dream, Public           Affairs, pp. 125-1296.

Manson, Mark (2016): The American Dream is Killing Us,, date retrieved May 6, 2017