One of the charges often made these days is that the American dream is lost — that unlike generations that have come before us, we and/or our children will not see an increase in the standard of living or quality of life.
Every time I come across one of these assertions (and they come from all over the political spectrum, depending upon context or specific policy issue), I wonder the same thing: what is it that people expect?
Now, I’m not talking about the federal debt, and whether our children are being left with a bill they won’t be able to pay. That debate is very recent. I’m talking about this assumption right here (from Reuters last year):
U.S. politicians constantly refer to the “American Dream,” best defined as the idea that each generation will live a better life than the one before. By now, the mantra has taken on the quality almost of a basic American right that young people can count on automatically.
Is it true that this has taken on the quality of (almost) a basic American right? Judging from some of the policy debates we have these days, I’d have to say yes.
How did a dream become a right? And just how far can one realistically expect to extend the “better life than the one before”?
This WSJ article (also from last year) demonstrates just how far out of whack the expectations have become:
My two siblings and I grew up very well off, in a sprawling house in an expensive New Jersey suburb with very good schools. My parents didn’t drive flashy cars or buy fancy clothes, but they did spend lavishly on travel, allowing us to build incredible memories of annual trips to Europe, Asia and across the U.S. […]
Money is tighter for my husband and me. My field, journalism, doesn’t have much financial upside; my husband’s career prospects in software development are brighter, but he’s in an industry that is vulnerable to the economic downturn. While we are by no means poor—and we are lucky to have very generous families and stable incomes during these down times–we likely won’t be able to offer our son all the same privileges we had.
So if one cannot offer the same privileges, the Dream is gone? That’s ludicrous. Following that line of thinking, disappointment is absolutely guaranteed eventually, regardless of where one starts in the spectrum.
Somewhere along the line, this train has gone off the rails… but where?
Perhaps some glimmer of understanding might be found in where this idea of “an American Dream” came from in the first place. According to Wikipedia, the term was first coined by one James Truslow Adams.
The American Dream is a national ethos of the United States of America in which democratic ideals are perceived as a promise of prosperity for its people. In the American Dream, first expressed by James Truslow Adams in 1931, citizens of every rank feel that they can achieve a “better, richer, and happier life.”
A promise of prosperity? Really? That sounds like a place where the “streets are paved with gold” to me. And better, richer, and happier than what?
Mr. Adams’ page sheds some light on what the original thinking was… and also on the glaring change this dream has undergone:
It is believed that Adams coined the term “American Dream” in his 1931 book The Epic of America. But Truslow’s coinage of the phrase had an entirely different (and much broader) meaning than what it has come to mean today.
The American Dream is “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”
Maybe I’m missing something, but I really see very little resemblance to that original “dream” in the expectations of today.
Working on problems that have the potential to overwhelm the American Dream altogether makes sense, but only if one is trying to preserve the promise of opportunity, rather than the illusion of guaranteed prosperity… because there was never a promise of prosperity.
What America promised was opportunity regardless of one’s social class or historical antecedents. There was never a guarantee of success, nor was there a guarantee that children will — or even should — expect a higher standard of living than that of the prior generation. Yet we’re measuring the success of our society these days on this flawed assumption.
Yes, I will agree that the American Dream is lost. It’s just gone missing in a way that most folks don’t seem to realize, or want to face.
Cross-posted from The Moderate Voice.