Although the term was coined in 1931 by James Truslow Adams, who defined it as “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 really was, for the most part, about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Over the years, the dream has changed accordingly, defined by what we think will bring us happiness. However, it has not changed in a good way.
Long ago, the American Dream was one of simplicity.
The proverbial white-picket-fence dream was made of both tangibles and intangibles; everyone wanted a home of their own for their family and a steady job that would provide not only the house, but for the comfort, safety, and well-being of their family. That’s what the dream was about. Prosperity was found not in the money you made or the things you owned, but the feeling of well-being that came with providing a comfortable life for your family. If you owned the land you lived on and your kids were healthy and your wife was able to put a hot meal on the table at dinner time, life was good. You were living the American Dream. Maybe you could even buy a car to take the family on a beach vacation.
In recent years, not only has the concept of the American Dream changed, but so has the attitude toward achieving that dream. Years ago, even in times of financial hardship, the attainment of the dream was brought about by hard work and, in times of financial crisis, by making do with what you had. Talk to anyone who has been through the Great Depression and they will mostly tell you the same thing my grandmother said about those times: “It is what it is.” Making do became part of the dream, not a sign of failure to realize the dream.
Now, with the economy in a downturn and the panicky words “recession” and “depression” becoming part of daily conversation, people are talking once again about “making do.” However, their idea of making do is quite different than my grandmother’s. Trading in the Hummer for a Mazda, taking two vacations instead of three, eating at less expensive restaurants, yet still dining out — it looks like, for a lot of people, somewhere along the line the American Dream morphed into the American Rich and Famous Lifestyle Fantasy.
They have traded the intangible stuff our forefathers’ dreams were made of for unabashed materialism. Gone are the dreams of the white picket fence, two adorable children, a cute little dog, and a station wagon. Now they dream of McMansions with Lincoln Expeditions in the four-car garage, right next to the ATVs and Jet Skis. They dream of perfect children who go to the most elite schools and wear designer clothing, and they want purebred dogs that come with pedigree papers. For a lot of Americans, that’s where the dream lies: in large-screen televisions and private schools, in built-in swimming pools and first-class plane tickets.
Very few people actually get those things, but most dream it. They measure their success in terms of the size of their home theaters.
What was wrong with the picket fence and station wagon? It was a simple dream, one that, with a good work ethic, was attainable for most.
And maybe that’s the problem. Work ethic. It seems more and more people want the dream, but want it made for them: life, liberty, and the pursuit of material goods with as little effort as possible. Others see it this way, as well.
“I see more of a sense of entitlement in people, where they feel like something is owed to them,” said Bolie Williams, one of a few people I talked to this week about the American Dream. “What is needed to achieve the American Dream is a desire to earn what one desires — to go out and work for it. The bottom line is that it is still possible to achieve the American Dream, but many people don’t see it as something worth working for or that they should have to work for.”
Along those same lines, Tom Bridge, who spoke with his extended family at length this week about the economy, quoted his aunt as saying, “Perhaps [the older generations] are not panicking when the word ‘depression’ is casually thrown about because we have a great example in Mom and Dad who found opportunity in the midst of adversity. I remember the adult conversations referring to ‘hard times,’ but never with tones of discouragement. It always seemed to be, ‘this is what we did to get along, and we are better people for having made our own ways.'”
It goes back to doing what you have to do to get by. We lost sight of the dream by setting unrealistic goals for ourselves. The daily offerings of credit cards and loans, along with a barrage of advertisements and the media’s push to get us to believe we need material goods in order to be happy, are just part of what has gotten us to this point, where the picket fence and simple life are not enough anymore.
Right now, shooting for the fantasy instead of the dream means mortgaging your future to pay your bills today. It is not necessary to live beyond your means in order to achieve the dream; you just have to redefine what it is you are after. Perhaps these tough economic times are just what we need to humble us, to give us a shove back to a time when we lead simpler, calmer lives, when our dreams were based on the health and happiness of our families, instead of the square footage of our houses or sticker price of our cars.