Is the “American Dream” still a thing?

By: Steve | Think Save Retire

When it comes to what the “American Dream” actually means, those definitions are a dime-a-dozen.

For my wife and me, it has something to do with quitting work in our 30s and traveling the country in an Airstream travel trailer. But for many, that’ll sound downright horrible. And, that’s okay.

If everybody’s definition was exactly the same, we’d live in an awfully boring world. Regardless of how we define the term, perhaps a better question is: Is the American dream still alive?

If you do a Google search for “Is the American Dream dead”, the results aren’t pretty.

For example, Richard Eskow writes that the American Dream is dead because people “can’t get ahead financially” and that living debt-free is only for the rich.

Researcher Gregory Clark believes that the American Dream has always been an illusion, and that “Blindly pursuing that dream now will only lead to a future with dire social challenges”.

Amazingly, the USA Today put a price tag on what the American Dream supposedly costs. The number? $130,357. And there ya have it, it’s as simple as that. Apparently, if you don’t have $130 Gs, the American Dream is not for you. How stupendously simple.

Is there any validity to this pessimism?

First, we need to determine what the American Dream actually is. Like I said before, most definitions are different.

Is the American Dream the ability to start a family, buy some property and live in a nice comfortable home? Maybe it is the freedom to choose your own path in life, shape your future in your own unique way and set forth down a path that is truly yours and tailored to your individual wants and desires.

If we take our cues from society, the norm in life can be roughly distilled down to something along the lines of this: earn a college degree, get married, buy a house in the suburbs, have a few kids, retire by 65 and live out the rest of your life like normal Americans.

Is this the American Dream? What if you want something different?

According to Wikipedia, the American Dream is thusly defined: “The American Dream is a national ethos of the United States, a set of ideals in which freedom includes the opportunity for prosperity and success, and an upward social mobility for the family and children, achieved through hard work in a society with few barriers“.

To be honest, I fully expected to disagree with the Wikipedia definition of the American Dream before I had read it. But truthfully, I think that definition is spot on.

The American Dream, to me, is the ability to take charge of your life in a society that supports and encourages personal growth.

Struggles make the dream sweeter

It means that the only thing standing between us and our ultimate goal of happiness is the strength of our determination to see it through. Challenges and tribulations along the way only make the end that much sweeter.

Using the Wikipedia definition, which is one that I happen to whole-heartedly agree with, there is simply no basis for the American Dream pessimism that we see from mainstream financial content factories.

For example:

  • People’s incomes will always differ.
  • We will all drive different cars.
  • We will work different jobs.
  • We will live in different sized homes
  • We will accumulate different amounts of debt.

Despite the personal choices that we make for our lives, the opportunity for something better will always be there.

This opportunity is the dream!

My wife and I are not living our lives the normal way. We have no plans to have children. We do not anticipate working past 2018 and we have no particular desire to move out into a big home in the suburbs and endure the torturous commute to an office for the next 30 years. And, that is okay.

This is our dream.  This is us, just two peas in a huge world-wide pod, shaping our future in the way that works the best for us. Even though we are moving against the grain of “normal” society, we are taking advantage of the American Dream to make it happen.  We are working hard and taking charge.

It’s alive!  It’s alive!

I believe the American Dream is alive and well in the United States. Contrary to a CNN poll that found 59% of those polled believe the American Dream is impossible to achieve, the fact remains that the American Dream itself essentially speaks to a personal determination, and nobody can take that away from us.

If one believes the American Dream to revolve around material possessions, or raises at work, or cars as nice as their neighbors, then it might seem like The Dream is impossible to achieve.

But in truth, The Dream is not about stuff.

If someone is not living what they believe the American Dream to be, that does not necessarily mean that the American Dream is impossible to achieve.

Remember that we cannot “achieve” The Dream as if it were a finish line, and crossing that line means that we have accomplished this or that, amassed X amount of wealth or paid off X amount of debt. The Dream is not a “thing” that we get and, therefore, it cannot be “bought”.

Instead, The Dream is a process.

The reality of living in the United States of America is actually quite encouraging. The very large majority of us have plenty of opportunities to succeed and build the life that we want. Some of us take those opportunities and make the best of them. Others don’t. The impact can be amazingly severe, but the result of our decisions does not kill off the American Dream.

The sheer number of rags to riches stories in this country and from around the world helps to prove how powerful our motivations are in building the lives that we want to live.

Like Ursula Burns, who grew up in low-income housing projects in New York and is now the head of Xerox, or Oprah Winfrey who wore dresses made out of potato sacks and widely known to have been abused as a child is now one of the richest people in the world, or Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling who lived on welfare and is now worth in the neighborhood of a billion.

Surely, we all won’t get to be quite as rich as these folks, but determination is what separates Burns, Winfrey, Rowling, and so many others, from the rest of the pack.

They could just as easily have chalked up their circumstances to a series of misfortunes and settled into a lonely life of frustration and misery. Oh well, The Dream is dead.

They didn’t. If you want the American Dream bad enough, you can have it. We all can. Just reach out and take it…I promise it won’t bite.

What say you? How do you define the American Dream, and do you believe it is still alive?

6 replies on “Is the “American Dream” still a thing?”

The last line of that Wikipedia definition included “with few barriers”.
With respect, Steve, you are a well- educated white male. As recent years have illustrated, there are still significant barriers to minorities, women and many others who do not fit the mold. For many people, it is “The American Struggle”.

Great article, Steve. I was recently with friends who are actively seeking that traditional Dream – million-dollar house in the ‘burbs, a few kids, a dog, and a truck. And while the traditional Dream works for them, I’m not entirely sure it’s what I want, too. I’m 30 years old, renting in San Diego, debt free with no kids and I’m perfectly fine with this setup. I think I’ve gotten caught up in chasing a Dream that wasn’t mine to begin with. Let’s see where this ol’ life takes us. Thanks for putting your words out there!

A good explanation of the “American Dream.” I agree that its hard to pin down, as everyone has a different opinion on their own dream.

I agree that the dream is not gone. Another blogger, Captain Capitalism ( had an interesting article saying that you could have the 1950’s “American Dream” of the house, 1 income, wife and 2+ kids. But you would need to live the 1950s lifestyle to do it.

1 Car
Home of 1,000 SF or less
No cell phone plan
1 TV
No cable/internet

Unless you lived in a real high-cost state, this is possible. The “American Dream” is possible, but like all things, you have to make a conscious choice about what you want an what you can afford.

I’m with you, Steve: the wikipedia definition is right on, and it is up to all of us as individuals to define what that means to us. The older generations were raised to pursue the American Dream in the form of a college education, corporate job, marriage, children, etc…many of us (me included) were taught this with an iron fist. The thought of shaping our own life was/is taboo and the younger baby boomers are facing growing pains with the realization that THAT Amedican Dream is no longer possible. This could be why second act entrepreneurship is surging for this age group! Loved the points here! Thank you. 🙂

In a world of capitalism and consumerism the American Dream is simply one trying to BE the Jones’s and believing others want to celebrate your success. Then again when we’re sold consumerism is what makes us, we become what we eat….
Turn off your tv, get off social media, let go of the past and your future expectations, and start investing more time doing the activities that you receive a direct benefit from ie exercise, relationships, learning, personal growth and experiences.
I’m off to bike ride and go snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef now….
Living the Dream

America isn’t about guarantees. It’s about opportunity as mentioned in the article. Sadly for many the problem is they expect guarantees. They often expect to live as they grew up, not remembering or acknowledging the work their parents may have put into making their lives easier. On the other hand I know many grow up with crappy opportunities, crappy parents, etc. that make getting ahead all that much harder. But in the end the majority of people learn how to read, how to write, how to think critically, and that can take you places if you try. Sadly, between the marketing blitzes that attempt to all but brainwash us that we need to spend so much and the fact that so many via family and culture treat opportunies as burdens needed to be ignored or spit upon (i.e. to cool for school) it’s hard to look beyond the noise and way to easy to find yourself buried deep with limited options. In the end though, it’s on you. Because no matter how you cut it, if you want more than a baseline life you have to work harder than the baseline. That will always be true no matter what we “get”, be it public education, universal health care, higher minimum wage, etc. that moves the baseline. Some may have farther to go, bigger mountains to climb, but very few get it for free and those that do tend to not appreciate it.

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