Is the American Dream dead? For a majority of people, it is, according to the CNN Money survey announced this past week. Several other studies confirm that.
The term “American Dream” was coined in 1931 by author James Adams, who wrote: “The American Dream of a better, richer and happier life for all our citizens of every rank… is the greatest contribution we have as yet made to the thought and welfare of the world.”
The American dream, of course, means different things to different people. It’s one of those things everyone thinks they have a good idea of, but few can articulate it to general agreement. One survey lists the following components:
- Owning your own home
- Getting married
- Having kids
- Getting a degree
- Retiring at 65
Others have a more nebulous definition, with terms like:
- A good life for my family
- Financial security
- Pursuit of happiness
Home ownership, the number one item in one study, was ranked number one by only 7% in another survey done by Xavier University. That shows the wide disparity in articulating just what is that elusive thing we call the American Dream.
Most people seem to settle on a system of beliefs that if you do the right thing and work hard, you will get ahead, and end up with a better life than your parents.
However, that belief is crumbling as this economic recovery has not benefited the majority. No matter what people might consider the American dream, fewer Americans than ever seem to think they will achieve it in their lifetimes.
We are seeing the first generation which believes it won’t match their parents’ standard of living.
That is profound — alarming, even.
What does the current generation see that deflates the hopes and dreams they have of their future? The faces of the declining aspirations are:
- More kids staying at home with one or both parents
- It’s harder to find jobs paying more than minimum wage, and involving a full 40 hour week
- Job rewards are falling behind: pension, health, job security, job satisfaction/pressure
- Education is costing more and guaranteeing less
- Student debt is now the largest category of debt after home mortgages
- Trust in leadership (public and private) is at an all-time low
If you had to pick a image of the American dream, it probably is the notion of retiring in a paid-off home. Some have stereotyped it as old fogies playing golf endlessly in plaid pants while the wife plays bridge interminably with others of the blue-rinse set. It symbolized a lifetime of diligent work yielding a tangible reward: financial freedom to do whatever you want to do. Today’s generation may deride it, but increasingly they realize that what our parents could take for granted, may have become unattainable.
If you look further, you can see other, more subtle, signs, for example Walmart displacing Sears as America’s retailer of choice. That shift shows tangibly how consumers fled “quality at a fair price” for low prices, regardless.
What has caused the waking up, if you will, from the American dream? Many explanations have been offered, such as America turning its back on the God it trusted in for hundreds of years, but who suddenly wasn’t good enough any more. However valid those explanations may be, America’s growing standard of living has been inextricably linked to the Industrial Revolution. The American Revolution did not precede the Industrial Revolution by much. That means America has pretty much defined itself as an Industrial Revolution nation. How many times do you hear the lament about America losing manufacturing jobs?
As America became the ultimate industrial power, the benefits of that domination allowed each successive generation to distance itself more and more from the rest of the world in living standards. As times are changing, the industrial age is being supplanted by the information age (read: the internet). That means the engine which propelled each generation to new material heights is being supplanted by jobs which pay less. Moreover, the lifespan of entire corporations is shrinking — I remember the days when Digital Equipment and Data General were the darlings of Wall Street, the “new wave” of hi-tech companies. They came and went in just twenty years. You might remember AOL… pretty much gone, too. How can you have a career when you know your company might not be around by the time your kids get to high school?
The Future Of The American Dream
Okay, the world is changing. China and India are the powers of the future, and both are well positioned to reap the benefits of the information age. What does that mean for us in America? More important, how do you respond?
Reset Your Expectations
The first thing the current generation needs to do is reset its expectations. We might never have the things our predecessors had, things like a pension at close to what we made when we were working. But that doesn’t mean we’re going to die in the gutter penniless.
It’s telling that almost all the surveys about the American dream note that immigrants usually have more hope than those born here. That’s because where they come from, life is not at the same standard as here. Even a below-average American lives a life most of the world would regard as royal. People who come from other countries know that, people who grew up here don’t.
Once you realize you don’t need to have bigger houses, drive fancier cars or wear the latest designer fashions to be happy, you’ll realize we are already living better than the vast majority of people in the world. If you can’t be grateful for that, the issue is not the disappearing American dream, it’s you.
Focus On The Positives
We might not have a fully funded pension, but we have longevity, health and abilities they didn’t have in as much abundance. That means we’re able to be productive and work longer. We’re more independent than ever and don’t need others to take care of us as much.
There is also much more to enjoy. Each passing decade brings new forms of entertainment, often for free or close to it. Thanks to Skype and Facetime, we can stay in closer contact with people across the world for free. Same with Facebook and Instagram.
Through the internet you can develop your hobbies much more extensively through networking and sharing. Working from home is becoming much more prevalent.
In other words, “standard of living” is acquiring meaning in ways not available to our forefathers, and a lot of it is free or inexpensive. Because it’s so easily obtainable, it’s easy to take them for granted.
The important thing is to grasp that while we might not be able to attain the American dream as defined in earlier times, the dream we can achieve, and do achieve, is different. And that different translates to better in many ways not obvious at first blush.
However, to derive the benefit from these new opportunities and technologies, you have to expand your horizons and tap into them.
Look At What Really Matters
At the end of the day, stuff is not what brings happiness. Happiness comes from within and from relationships. Most people, on their deathbed, do not think of the car they bought or didn’t buy, the house they could or couldn’t afford, or whether they saw Rome or not. The things they remember are the family and friends they were blessed with, and the only regrets usually relate to people.
The low cost technologies like Facebook and Skype increase our standard of living without needing more dollars, unlike the seaside mansion and expensive yacht of earlier days.
In other words, the American dream might not be dying. It might just be shedding its old, expensive skin, and emerging as a more flexible creature with wings instead of feet.
As the shrinking American dream puts a crimp on your budget, it is more important than ever to know you’re not overpaying for your insurance. Are you sure you’re not overpaying? Why not make sure? Why not give Grant’s team a call today?