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  • Writer's pictureMelody Bell

Is the American Dream No Longer Attainable?

My go-to finance resource, Investopedia, released the top search terms of 2023. The top search term was “American Dream”. Most nowadays think of the American Dream in capitalistic terms. Can I buy a home? Can I retire? Some may even associate Financial Independence with the American Dream. 

What is the American Dream? Why is it at the top of our minds? Why do we feel the need to search for its meaning? I also wonder what the younger generations think about the American Dream. 

What is the American Dream?

Close your eyes. Create a picture in your mind of what the American Dream looks like. I envision a large house with a white picket fence and two cars outside. A family with two children and a dog. Why does my mind create this picture? Because that is what society has embedded into our minds. 

The American Dream became popular after the phrase was coined by James Truslow Adams. In Adams’ book The Epic of America, Adam’s defined the American Dream as: 

“The 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 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.”

The original intent of the American Dream was not associated with capitalism. The original American Dream was a dream of equality in our country. Bringing wealth into the definition of the American Dream actually made it the opposite of the original vision of equality for all. According to historian, Sarah Churchwell, the meaning of the American Dream changed in the 1950s and has since been frozen in our minds to be associated with a more consumer capitalistic view. A view that in order to live the American Dream we need to be well educated, own a home, and reach milestones all associated with a dollar amount. The interest in the subject sparked Investopedia to estimate that dollar amount. Their estimate is 3.4 million. I’m inclined to think this estimate is low as they only estimate retirement savings at $715,968. 

Why is the American Dream at the top of our minds?

People searching for the American Dream is not likely a good sign. I don’t imagine they are looking the term up to confirm if they have achieved the American Dream, but more likely to determine if it is attainable. 

So, I went to my 22 year old daughter to get her thoughts. She begrudgingly discussed the topic with me. She feels the American Dream, both the old definition and new are not attainable for her generation. There is a divide in our country financially, politically, and value set that seems insurmountable to overcome.Yet, there are still so many immigrants that are seeking to live the American Dream. 

In speaking with another friend in her late 20s, she thinks by defining the American Dream to specific milestones like purchasing a house or having children it is missing the desires of her generation. She would much rather not be tied to a home because she wants to be able to easily move and having children is far from her mind because she wants to travel. She thinks the American Dream should be self-defined.  

Rethinking the American Dream

This research and discussions have brought me to feel the American Dream should be self-defined by individuals, similar to financial well-being. We alone determine what our dream is and what that looks like. We embrace that our dream may change over time and only we are the ones to determine what that dream is and if we are living it. 

We also need to acknowledge that we do not have sole control over our prospects of success. This is where Adams’ view that we need to have a “social order in which each man and woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable”. There are still inequities in our society that prevent this. 

What is your American Dream? Are you living it? Are there forces keeping you from living it?

How are you influencing the next generation’s definition of the American Dream? Our approach to teaching personal finance includes dream-setting. Before getting into the details of goal-setting, we first start big. Instead of telling learners our vision of the American Dream and how they should strive for it, we begin by learning the dreams of the learners. The learners are going to be more excited to strive for their personal version of the American Dream than they are one dictated by society. 

Managing Director

North Starr Consulting


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