The American Dream – Dead or Alive?

What is the American Dream, and can it still be achieved? This is an important question. Dan Sheeks, a personal finance expert, explains what he believes to be the American Dream in part influenced by his survey of students. His list of what constitutes the America Dream includes the following: go to college, get a good job, get married and have 2.3 kids and a dog, buy the nicest house and car one can afford, retire at age 65, enjoy the good life, and leave your children a nice inheritance when you die.

His definition is in stark contrast to the American Dream as defined on Wikipedia, which describes the American Dream as follows:

“The American Dream is a national ethos of the United States, the set of ideals (democracy, rights, liberty, opportunity and equality) in which freedom includes the opportunity for prosperity and success, as well as an upward social mobility for the family and children, achieved through hard work in a society with few barriers. In the definition of the American Dream by James Truslow Adams in 1931, “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.”

To summarize, Sheeks’ definition relates to education, working, having a nice house and car, getting married and having children and perhaps leaving money to your heirs. In contrast, the more traditional definition as described on Wikipedia describes a situation whereby someone can break the barriers of class and cultural structure to achieve prosperity, success, and upward social mobility through hard work in a society with few barriers.

The distinction in the two definitions is important. Why? Because Sheeks definition is something that is not uniquely American. People in many countries around the globe, including most of Europe, most of Asia and many parts of South America can get an education, get a job, get married and have children, buy a house and car, and even leave something to their children. So, this is not really an American Dream, it is a global dream, and this dream is coming true for many people across the globe.

The Wikipedia definition includes something that in most other countries is not possible. The key element of the traditional definition is “regardless of social class or circumstances of birth.” That is the difference. That is why many immigrants came to America, particularly those who did not come as refugees or who were fleeing war or famine in their own countries. They came to America because they knew that in their own country, due to the country’s class structure or because of their circumstances of birth, they would be stuck in low-wage typically labor-intensive jobs like the ones held by their parents. Even worse, the prospects for their children were no better. Their children too would be stuck in low-wage labor intensive jobs.

Many Americans who have lived their entire lives in the United States, and who have either not traveled or have traveled very little, have serious misconceptions about economic opportunity outside of the US. I find two common misconceptions. The first one is that countries outside the US (and perhaps a few western European countries) and basically hell holes of backwardness and poverty with terrible standards of living. The second one is that other countries are just like the US and that upward social mobility and building wealth are achievable in those countries, as they are in the US. The reality is both of those pictures are wrong.

Most countries outside of the US have big cosmopolitan cities, have middle- and upper-class people who work, own homes and cars, send their kids to school and some even accumulate wealth. Of course, this situation varies by country, but in general, in most countries, you will find what I have described to be the case. But what is also almost always universal outside of the US is the inability of the people at the bottom levels of society to break through to the middle or even upper class in that society. Basically, whatever station in life you were born in to, is the station in life you will live in, and is the station in life your children will live in.

There is a reason that millions of people risk all to illegally race across our borders, and there is a reason that millions of people are lined up waiting to move to the United States legally. For most of them it is not because they live in hellholes, because they are in fear of their lives, or because they disagree with their country’s culture. It is because their home country does not offer them the upward social mobility and the ability to build wealth they seek – a key part of the American Dream.

The American Dream is still very much alive, and it can be achieved. Immigrants to this country prove it every day of the week. The question you must ask is will it still be alive ten, twenty or fifty years from now? I don’t have a crystal ball, but it certainly appears to me that some of the folks in Washington (and Sacramento) are hell bent on killing it.