The American Dream—is it really dead?
The American Dream…what a phrase. It means many things to many people, and no two really agree. But as a concept, we certainly all have an idea what we mean by it. In its simplest form, it means living well; perhaps better than one’s parents did. 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.
Hmmm. Let’s think about that. It has been said many times over recent decades that the American dream has died, or is certainly dying. That there is no opportunity for the “next generation”, that the “best years” have passed us by, as a nation, as a people. Is that true? It is easy to look around and decide that yes, the American dream is OVER. Look at all the problems we have, and all the things we’d like to have, both in material goods and in more esoteric things such as desiring government and society to run by one’s own particular mores. It is easy to bemoan our status, to look at what we do not have, to desire more. To envy “the Joneses.”
But when we do so, do we ever compare what we have to that of those who came before us? The originators of the American Dream? Do we ever delight in the things which we use every day, of which our parents and grandparents could only dream?
Or have we narrowed our focus too far? One criteria often used by pollsters for ‘the American Dream’ is home-ownership. The ability to own one’s home seems, on the surface, to be an ideal measure for the American Dream. Certainly, it should be possible for one to purchase one’s home, shouldn’t it? But wait…within that seemingly innocuous question lies the very rub of our dissatisfaction. Because, you see, the generations before us dreamed of owning their own home, and considered themselves successful when they had done so. That’s reasonable, right? But wait…what was their criteria for “one’s home?” Were they unsatisfied unless they had a bedroom for every child, a master bathroom off the master bedroom for comfort and privacy? Did they expect to have a ‘guest bathroom’ for people who visited, so they wouldn’t have to see the curling irons, deodorants, and other mundane items with which the family lived?
Or was their idea of a home—having a roof over one’s head which seldom leaked—a bed to sleep in—a working furnace, running water and food? How many of us were raised in homes with only one bathroom, shared bedrooms with same-sex siblings, had far less ‘privacy’ and space than we take for granted now? Take for granted—we DEMAND it!
Oh, and about food. Our previous generations expected to work hard and provide for their families, and wanted good, wholesome food—but did they often go to restaurants? The current generation of families expects to eat out, on average, three nights a week! Did they have pantries full of ‘convenience foods?” In fact, a century ago, even our ‘better’ groceries did not contain a fraction of the foods we see today. Fresh produce out of season, or from overseas? There was a dream for you…Many families had their own gardens, and some raised their own meat. Even in cities, people ate what was in season, dried, or canned, or froze up things for the winter months, and considered themselves fortunate. They had dreams, but did their dreams imagine Toaster Strudel? Or Burger King? Or Starbucks?
When these things are brought up in conversation, we are invariably told, ‘oh, but it was so much easier when women didn’t have to work.’ ExCUSE me? It may be easier today for a woman who doesn’t have to work—that’s a whole other essay on budgeting and scrimping—but even in the vaunted 50s, it certainly wasn’t easier. There were no disposable diapers, for instance. No microwaves….
I wonder, when our parents truly look around them, or our grandparents, if they are still living—do they think the American Dream has died? If our great-grandparents could be magically transported to our lives, what would they think? That we have surpassed their dreams, certainly. Perhaps, each generation needs to dream larger than the last—sounds good, doesn’t it? But where does it stop? Or does it? It’s should be obvious that we cannot go on wanting more and more and more—there is an end. When can we say, enough? Or is it just not human nature?