Much has been written recently about the death of the American Dream. The collapse of the real estate market in 2008, followed by a worrisome three-year recession, a struggling job market, and the rising cost of college tuition have caused many to wonder: is the American Dream still alive? Can it be restored? Should it be laid to rest?
James Truslow Adams coined the phrase in 1931 when he wrote,
The American Dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone. . . . It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position. (The Epic of America)
For over a century the American Dream was characterized as having a house in the suburbs with a white picket fence, two cars in the garage, 2.5 children in the house, a faithful dog in the yard — and a chicken in every pot. The twin equalizers of democracy and laissez faire promised social mobility, financial security, judicial equality, and prosperity through hard work. Next door to that house in the suburbs lived the Joneses, and keeping up with them was part of the dream too. Bolstering the dream was “an underlying belief that hard work pays off and that the next generation will have a better life than the previous generation” (Ari Shapiro, NPR).
Today’s dreamer, however, keeps the dog on the bed, not in the yard, and children are likely to be delayed into the mid-30s, if they come at all. Bicycles stand next to the hybrid or electric car in the garage, and the house is controlled remotely by smart phones. The chicken in that pot must be free-range, antibiotic-free, and served with locally grown vegetables.
The average student leaves college saddled with more than $30,000 in student loans. Debt is a prison they dream of escaping.
Unlike the Joneses next door, the new dreamers are less materialistic and more likely to be getting rid of stuff than accumulating it. Bigger is no longer considered better, and tiny houses are the latest fad. The new dreamers eschew self-interest and care about connectedness and global awareness. Buzzwords like “sustainability,” “social responsibility,” and “green” drive their dream. They want to live in downtown urban areas and prefer apartments or multi-family dwellings where they can share amenities and reduce their carbon footprint. Ellen Dunham-Jones, a professor of architecture and urban design at Georgia Tech, says, “this generation is more interested in the amenities of the city itself: great public spaces, walkability, diverse people and activities with which they can participate.”
But even this smaller, more earth-friendly dream seems remote to many. The new dreamer no longer believes that hard work: necessarily pays off and worries that, for the first time in our history, the next generation will not be better off than its parents. In fact, according to columnist Adam Levin, being debt-free is a key factor in the new American Dream. According to his study, only 18.2% of Americans today see homeownership as part of the American dream, while 27.9% cite having enough money to retire at 65 as their goal and 23% of young people today simply dream of being debt-free. This is not surprising, when the average student leaves college saddled with more than $30,000 in student loans. Debt is a prison they dream of escaping.
Contrary to media pundits and government analysts who push the idea that consumer spending drives the economy; any move toward saving and fiscal responsibility is good for the economy, and thus good for the American Dream. In fact, the Bureau of Economic Analysis recently acknowledged the distortion of focusing so much on consumer spending and recently began issuing GO (gross output) statistics that include the production sectors of the economy.
Meanwhile, welfare and unemployment are dragging down the American dream. Not only is welfare expensive in terms of how much transfer payments cost, but also in how much is lost from the lack of productivity from those who aren’t working and contributing to the economy. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996 made progress toward ending lifelong welfare, but today, 35.4% of Americans are living on welfare of some sort, according to the Census Bureau. This nightmare has to be changed if the dream is to stay alive.
Throughout the 20th century, home ownership was encouraged as a way to stabilize and improve communities, because people who own their homes are more likely to stay put, take care of their property, get involved in local politics, and remain employed. Millennials, however, avoid home ownership for those very reasons. They don’t want to “stay put” but value spontaneity, mobility, and the freedom to accept unexpected opportunities without having to worry about selling a house. Home ownership has, in fact, been declining since 2004. In a survey conducted last year, only 61% said they would buy a house if they had to move (New York Times, Feb. 8, 2015). In the words of Thoreau, “our houses are such unwieldy property that we are often imprisoned rather than housed in them” (Walden).
Today’s dreamer keeps the dog on the bed, not in the yard, and children are likely to be delayed into the mid-30s, if they come at all.
Don’t make the mistake of assuming that today’s generation is lazy, however. Most work hard, but they work, or want to work, at doing things they love. Many are turning from corporate America to entrepreneurial America and rely more on developing a horizontal social network than on climbing a vertical corporate ladder. And, while it is fashionable to hate capitalism, many are capitalists by default, creating businesses and often working from home. The new American sells advertising to support blogspots and engages in crowd-funding campaigns to raise capital for projects.
In short, the New American Dream is more about finding happiness and sustaining the planet than about achieving financial prosperity — although we are happy to accept prosperity if it finds its way to our door. Personal satisfaction is more important than keeping up with the Joneses, and making time for oneself — to work out at the gym, go to a concert, read a book, post a blog, or create a work of art — is more important than putting in overtime at the office.
Is the American Dream alive? It is, but it’s changed. And it isn’t just for Americans ant more. What’s your dream? And how are you making it come true?