Is the American Dream Dead?

Here's how to recalibrate success in a post-recession economy

Jun 22, 2014 at 12:15PM

Is the American dream dead? A majority of people say it is, according to the recently announced CNN Money survey, as well as several others done at academic institutions like Xavier and Youngstown universities and other private organizations. Although the samples, questions and methodologies differ from survey to survey, the results all seem to indicate that the American dream (however people define it) is dying.

The term "American dream" was coined in the Great Depression the first time a major economic meltdown happened in full view of the entire nation through mass media, like radio and national print. It is a bit ironic that author James Adams penned this in 1931, the depth of the Great Depression: "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."

You could make the case that the American dream has turned out to be America's greatest export to the world. Entire societies, from Japan and China to Russia and Dubai, have undergone significant changes, all shifting toward the American dream, however they translate it into their version.

What Is The American Dream?
Ask ten people and you're bound to get eleven answers. It's one notion about which everyone seems to have a vague idea but few actually articulate down to a short list. A number of surveys consider the following components when they discuss the American dream:

  • Owning your own home
  • Getting married
  • Having kids
  • Getting a degree
  • Retiring at 65

Other studies reveal more nebulous definitions, with terms like:

  • A good life for my family
  • Financial security
  • Freedom
  • Opportunity
  • Pursuit of happiness

Homeownership, the number one item in the Learnvest/Chase study, was ranked number one by only 7 percent in the Xavier study, illustrating the wide disparity in how people articulate the elusive dream.

When you sift through the noise, though, the essence of the American dream boils down to a system of hopes, aspirations and beliefs: If you do the right thing and work hard, you believe that you will get ahead, that you will one day accomplish the things to which you aspire, and that each generation will have a better life than the previous one.

However, that system of hopes and beliefs is crumbling as this economic recovery has not benefited the majority. We are now seeing a generation which believes it will not match their parents' standard of living.

That is profound because it is the first time in this nation's history that has ever happened.

What Does It Look Like?

  • More kids are staying at home with one or both parents.
  • It is harder to find jobs that pay more than minimum wage and involve a full 40-hour week.
  • Job rewards are falling behind: pension, health, job security, job satisfaction/pressure.
  • Job security is dead: Fewer people believe that dong the right thing and working hard will work.
  • Education is costing more and guaranteeing less.
  • Student debt is now the largest category of debt after home mortgages.
  • Trust in leadership (both public and private) is at an all-time low.

Hard statistics bear this out. The labor force participation rate for those under 25 has been declining for a while and shows no sign of turning around. Conversely, the participation rate for those over 55 is rising, at a time when their forebears checked out of the workforce and retired.

If you had to pick a notion which captures the quintessence of the American dream, it's probably retiring in a paid-off home. Some stereotype that as old fogies playing golf in plaid pants all day, while Missy plays endless rounds of bridge with the blue-rinse set in the senior center. Today's generation may deride the image, but increasingly they realize they may never attain what their parents could take for granted — a lifetime of diligent work yielding financial freedom to do whatever you want to do.

If you look further, you can see other, more subtle, signs. Walmart has displaced Sears as America's retailer of choice, showing how consumers have spurned "good quality at a fair price" for "everyday low prices" regardless of quality.

What Can You Do?
The reasons this generation expects to do worse than its parents are many, and, for most of us, don't matter as much as figuring out what we can do in the face of our declining prospects.

1. Reset your expectations
All unhappiness, my wife tells me, comes from unmet expectations. Most Americans started life expecting they'll end up with a better life than their parents. When, after some years, it starts to look like that's not going to happen, they get frustrated and impatient. Immigrants, on the other hand, who grew up with an entirely different set of expectations, arrive in the States with wide eyes and beaming smiles. To them, America is still the land of opportunity. It's not surprising to see that almost all of the surveys note that the American dream is still alive to a much greater degree in immigrant households.

The difference? Expectations. Immigrants seem to have lower expectations. By simply lowering your expectations of material comfort, career advancement and peer group acceptance, you remove a lot of the pressure you put on yourself. In essence, you reset your life compass to a slightly lower north. Just changing what you regard as your version of the American dream will increase your happiness.

And isn't happiness, at the end of the day, what the American dream is all about?

2. Reset spending
It's simple math, really: Spend less than you earn. No need to beat that dead horse.

It does get complicated, though, when you have to commit to expenses into an unknown future, like on a home lease or mortgage. We'd all like to be able to buy a home for cash, but the reality is most of us can't do that these days. Instead, we have to make spending commitments which count on a future income.

The solution to that problem is obviously to keep those commitments to a minimum and to sacrifice to amass an emergency fund that can see you through any periods when you won't be able to keep those commitments from income.

3. Understand that debt is more dangerous than ever before
I suspect many people nod their heads in agreement to that headline — and then incur debt anyway because they feel they can justify it. That feeling of justification is often rooted, directly or not, in the American dream.

However you look at it, debt is nothing but impatience expressed in dollars. And those with aspirations for better things take on debt when they can't afford them.

The key to finding your way in a "dreamless America" is not falling into the trap of thinking that "things will get better in the future, at which time I can pay off this debt." Is this hard? Painful? Unfair? Frustrating? It's all of the above and more, but it's still the prudent new reality. As Marty Schottenheimer always says when asked how he feels about not winning a Super Bowl: "It is what it is."

Much better to assume things will never get better than to assume they will and live an unhappy life.

4. Be content with what you can afford
Kiss the Joneses goodbye and don't try to keep up with anybody. I'm an immigrant, and unabashedly a believer in the American dream. But I'm not stupid enough (any more) to sacrifice my journey for a destination which often ends up being a let-down. Are there things I'd like but don't have, places I'd like to see which I haven't? You betcha. But I've learned, as someone once said, to be content with what I do have (and did see).

This recommendation is not a financial one; it's one of identity and emotion.

Happiness is what the American dream is all about. I grew up in Africa, where I saw contentment in a hut of less than 400 square feet, no plumbing, no phone and no electricity. The people had no degree, no job, no pension — just family and enough food to get by. When you look at those wide smiles, you can't help but realize you don't need "stuff" to be happy. We're privileged that what we might call a low standard of living in America is the lap of luxury to the majority of people in the world today.

No matter how distant your dream is, you can be content. By scaling back your expenses and expectations — and, above all, avoiding debt — you can stay content until the day you die.

What do you see as the American dream? Do you think you will reach it?

This article Is The American Dream Dead? originally appeared on FiveCentNickel.com.

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