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Defining the American Dream: A look at how it’s changed over the years, what it means now and why we

   With the Presidential race gearing up for a protracted 2012 battle to win the White House, candidates everywhere are talking about “the American Dream”: how we lost it, and what they would do to get it back. But what is it, exactly? Is it the same dream today as it was in American Dreams past? How important is the concept of an, “American Dream” to the identity of what it means to be American, or, like Elvis, the hoola-hoop and home ownership,  is the American Dream just a faded memory of yester-year?

The idea of the great American Dream finds its roots in the hopes and aspirations of European explorers who dreamed of developing the untamed New World. The British Pilgrims had an image of the American Dream when they believed that establishing a life where individuals could worship freely was intrinsically rooted in breaking ties with the old world and establishing a new one. During the Great Depression, people actually wrote about “The American Dream,” codifying the concept as part of our American identity.

The American Dream has always been equated with freedom and material prosperity, two concepts that surged in pockets of society during decades like the 1950s and 1980s and according to critics has been retreating ever since. A Wikipedia definition includes the following caution about the American Dream:

“The concept plays on the idea that America is a classless society, although it is obviously not, as any honest examination of the United States will reveal. The idealistic vision of the American Dream also assumes that people are not discriminated against on the basis of race, religion, gender, and national origin, another thing which is unfortunately not true in the United States.”

There’s little doubt that the definition of the American Dream has changed as America itself has changed. As the fabric of society shifts focus, so does the focus of the Dream. For our Founding Fathers, the American Dream embodied a life unshackled by the constraints of intrusive government, but was in no way about a life of luxuries, material possessions or even equality. For them, the Dream was a philosophy that rested upon a transparent and reliable rule of law where certain rights were “inalienable.” Back then and for almost two centuries it was still a white man’s world and the American Dream was something that only certain classes could afford to entertain. Achieving the Dream meant that a white man could marry and reproduce, own workable land, and that his toiling was ultimately rewarded by the security of these things. It meant that he could not be jailed without formal charges and a speedy trial by a jury of his peers, that he had the right to confront his accusers, and that government could not possess his hearth and home without just reason and compensation.

In early twentieth century America, the dream emphasized one’s children being able to have more opportunities and better lives than their parents did – a big theme with immigrants. For these people, class and culture were still barriers – urban neighborhoods like “little Italy” and “China town” were formed because folks kept to their own, but within their respective barrios they were opening bakeries and delis, shoe repair shops and one-man services, like tailoring and bookkeeping. For immigrants, life still had vastly more to offer in the segregated neighborhoods of America than it did in the old country under more stringent governments.

With the Industrial Age and Henry Ford’s assembly line, American industry blossomed. For the first time the working class could afford a luxury item like a car, and freedom took on a whole new meaning. College was still mostly afforded to the rich, but most children received a high school education, became literate, and took comfort in the idea that they would find a job with a good company and settle into adulthood with the security of employment and maybe even promotions over the next 25 or 30 years. “Suburbia” was the new goal and for the first time, credit became available and young married couples just starting out learned how to buy new convenience items like washing machines “on time.”

While this defined the core of what many people wanted, this idea of the American Dream was still not available to everyone. Although classes had changed from the time of the founding fathers, race, gender, religion  and economic status still drew sharp lines in the sand that were not to be crossed. Many groups were disenfranchised and their opinions and issues dismissed.  Even so, immigrants continued to flood the borders, partly to flee the life they had in Europe and partly in pursuit of that idea of the American Dream: the idea that if you worked hard enough and long enough, you could improve your lot in life, and even if you had to stick to your own, there was the hope of something better than in other places.

By the 1960s and the failures of the Vietnam War, many of America’s youth and minority populations had had enough of the old American Dream. Campus demonstrations and sit-ins were popularized by “Hippies,” and infamous author and psychologist Timothy Leary advised Americans to “turn on, tune in, and drop out.”  Dr. Martin Luther King had a dream of his own that included true equality of opportunity for all races to live peacefully together. In all this, the American Dream was once again under renovation.

The seventies brought indulgence. Sure, we had an energy crisis and the Iranians gave us our first major hostage situation, but the Dream was one of self-indulgence: drugs, glitter and disco. Shoes were taller, pants were wider. Since World War I, the big Crash of ’29 and the subsequent Great Depression, it had always been that generations before wanted their children to have it better, and for awhile in the seventies, a lot of people lived life in the fast lane. Using credit cards for everyday goods was coming into the mainstream. Things that used to last, like pens and razors, became disposable, food became fast, and college attendance was on the rise as women and minority groups continued to break through invisible barriers.

With the eighties, America flexed its economic muscle to the world with the fall of the Berlin Wall and general death of Communism as a major political and economic power. The energy crisis of the past decade was over and homeland prosperity brought an indulgence of a different kind – material. Junk bonds and hand-made suits, big shoulder pads, big hair and TV shows like Dallas, Dynasty and Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous defined what was important – suddenly having it all was the American Dream.

The nineteen nineties and early millennium gave birth to the neo-hippies – not a free-love and drug culture but a back-to-the-earth  group of people coming together over environmental issues like global warming, Styrofoam in our landfills, pollution in our air, and caring for the living organism that is our planet. These people were raising their voices in small, unorganized groups, urging people to recycle, use less paper, and buy organic.

The nineties was the era of the personal computer, and soon the internet would give rise to the new Gold Rush as entrepreneurs fought to cash in on the boom. Millionaires were being made faster than ever before. For the first time in decades, Washington enjoyed a balanced budget and President Clinton enjoyed a good cigar. Banks gave home loans to anyone with a pen to sign and for a brief moment, the American Dream seemed too big to fail amidst the euphoria of it all.

Then came the hangover of the inevitable crash: housing, personal credit, natural disasters, global conflicts and political revolutions sprung up everywhere, all brought about at super-speed through Twitter, Face book, and the politically and economically interdependent global village of the world-wide-web. Now, suddenly a health epidemic in Southeast Asia, an earthquake in Japan or even an incompetent customer service rep in the Philippines could have serious effects on our personal economies.

Today, amidst the worst unemployment crisis since the Great Depression, President Obama wants to keep his job. By almost any standard, he’s achieved the American Dream: unlike many, the Obamas have access to high-quality, affordable health care. They enjoy financial security, superior education, and the Obama children have every opportunity to prosper as much or more than their parents.

The world is more dangerous and our military less powerful. Fewer Americans own homes or have savings accounts, and for the first time in modern history, the next generation will be saddled with oppressive debt and will prosper less than their parents. As the economy takes a tumble, more Americans turn to entitlements for help, growing the power of big government. Grassroots movements like the Tea Party and Occupy are born out of an inherent frustration and downright outrage over the assault on the American Dream.

As Americans argue over who’s to blame, we enter a major election year and a protracted debate on what the Dream is and how to get it back.

Michael Ford, Founding Director of the Center for the Study of the American Dream, says the rhetoric of politicians does little to influence what people think about the country’s future:

“When politicians speak about the American Dream, they are quickly dismissed by the people they represent. We are approaching a tipping point of some kind and we will continue to watch it. However, at hand are questions greater than who will win an election. The Tea Party and Occupy movements are only symptoms of deeper issues and discontent.”

The Center also notes a trend in a lower threshold of tolerance for the promises of politicians: “For some time, we have been observing distrust, alienation and disappointment among Americans when it comes to our political situation and our relationship with our political leaders. So there is no surprise in our latest numbers that 2/3rds of us see no relevance of the Presidential campaign to our American Dreams. Worse is the idea that 81% of Americans surveyed believe that elected officials have lost sight of the American Dream.” conducts an annual survey about the American Dream, and found that “Among the population that took the survey, 34% felt that they had already achieved the American Dream, while 70% believed that they would, eventually. However, 43% of those who had achieved the dream were afraid they might lose it, certainly a factor of our uncertain times.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, the survey found that younger individuals were more optimistic about their personal chances of achieving the American Dream: “Of  those members of Generation X (born 1965-1977) surveyed, four in five who hadn’t yet achieved the dream believed they could. Generation Y-ers (born 1978-1994) were even more optimistic; 19 of every 20 surveyed thought they could realize the dream.”

So just what is the American Dream? Those surveyed prioritized the dream this way: Financial security:  65%; Family/children: 58%; Free from want/My basic needs are met: 43%; Comfortable retirement: 36%; Home ownership: 35%; Successful career: 31%; Marriage: 29%; Others: 3%.”

A disturbing but perhaps not surprising trend revealed was the fact that most Americans lack any financial safety net. Forty-five percent said that if they were out of work they could pay their bills for less than a month, and 19% said they could make it only two weeks.

Highlights from the Center for the Study of the American Dream’s annual survey findings include:

  1. “While confidence in the economy and optimism about America’s place in the world have significantly declined, respondents are nonetheless still confident in their own personal ability to achieve their American Dreams.

  2. Currently, the four most prominent definitions of the American Dream are “a good life for my family,” “financial security,” “opportunity,” and “freedom.”

  3. A large majority of Americans believes that immigration is important to keeping the American Dream alive.

  4. To a significant degree, the American people have lost faith and trust in our nation’s leading public and private institutions–heretofore charged with safeguarding the American Dream–including politics, business, government, and the media.

  5. The American people strongly believe that the United States is in rapid decline as it loses economic power and influence to rising nations such as China. A majority of Americans now believes that the “world looks to many different countries” as the standard for success, while a minority believes America “represents the future.”

While it’s true that The American Dream has changed as the culture changes, reality shows like Jersey Shore and the Housewives franchise do little to role model good character or strong work ethics, qualities that used to be the backbone of this country.  As YouTube and shows like X-Factor and American Idol grant instant celebrity status to a lucky few, more of America’s youth are defining the American Dream as instant gratification of the ego. This places the integrity of the Dream itself into unchartered territory, and where it will end up is anybody’s guess.

Business Insider’s Michael Snyder wrote a piece called, “50 Things Every American Should Know About the Collapse of the Economy.” In it he says, “The American people need to be shocked out of their entertainment-induced stupor long enough to understand what is really going on and what needs to be done to solve our nightmarish economic problems.”

So heading into a new year, we have more questions than answers about the state of our American Dream. As a people, we have more diversity, more points of view, and more ways to express our opinions than ever before. While the Dream is something that no politician can guarantee, the wrong politician can kill it. While no government program can provide it, big government can take it away.

 It seems fitting that Americans will determine our future leader in a year the Mayans predicted would be the world’s last. That’s the kind of chutzpah you’d expect from the USA – unbridled spirit in the face of turmoil.  And no matter what else might be going on, surely that’s a good sign.

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