The notion American dream is a fundamental part of the American society and culture, dozens of books, articles and songs deals with this topic, politicians often mention it in their speeches. Though the phrase has different meanings to different people, it suggests an underlying belief that hard work pays off and that the next generation will have a better life than the previous generation. Nowadays this belief is challenged and more and more concern is articulated in connection with the American dream in the 21st century. As comedian, author and social critic George Carlin have put it: “It’s called the American dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.” In what follows I would like to explore the theme of the American dream as a whole and consider its juncture in the 21st century by elaborating on its past and present.
The evolution of the American dream
Historian James Truslow Adams is credited for being the first popularizing the idea of the American dream in his book The Epic of America (1931). He characterizes the American dream 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.” But the same idea existed since the colonist times. In 1630 John Winthrop give a sermon to his fellow Puritan colonists in which he detailed his vision of a society in which everyone would have a chance to prosper, as long as they all worked together and followed Biblical teachings. Eventually, the hope for equality of opportunity evolved in colonists’ mind into a God-given right.
More than a hundred years later Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence asserted that every American – except the slaves – have the right to “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.” As grew America in the 19th century, so did the number of immigrants who saw the continent as a land of opportunity where anything could be achieved if a person dared to dream big enough. The words “American dream” gradually began to appear in newspaper articles and books in the mid- to late-1800s.
The first difficulties appeared during the Great Depression in the 1930s. It affected both the rich and the poor. The self-made millionaires lost their fortune, Americans of humbler means lost their jobs and homes. With the beginning of Roosevelt’s presidency a new era begin in the American history and so did in the evolution of the Dream. In a 1941 speech Roosevelt visioned a new, government-assisted American dream, which included full employment, government help for the elderly and those unable to work, and “enjoyment of the fruits of scientific progress in a wider and constantly rising standard of living.” Previously the achievement of the American dream depended on the individual’s ability and hard-work, now, due to the Depression the government’s assistance was needed. The post-World War II prosperity meant for many Americans the fulfillment of the Dream, so that he faith in the American dream was restored least for the majority.
By this time the American dream was equal to amassing wealth, but the other important aspect sank into oblivion. In a 1964 speech entitled “The American Dream,” civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr voiced this other aspect which Thomas Jefferson’s statement: “All men are equal”. For King the Dream was that same rights and opportunities would be granted for everyone regardless of skin-color. In the 1970s, with the U.S. economy stalling, inflation on the rise and the nation torn by both racial strife and an angry divide over the Vietnam War the idea of the American dream got questioned once again. A french historian Ingrid Carlander in her book (Les Americaines) claimed that the American dream was dead. These circumstances lead to the transform of the Dream again.
In 1980 Ronald Reagen took office, who was the embodiment of the American dream. He had risen to presidency from a humble farm family in Illinois. Therefore his words seems to be credited when he claimed that America is still a place where “everyone can rise as high and far as his ability will take him”. His solution to the crisis of the Dream was to disestablish the dependency on the government by cutting taxes. At first sight it seemed to be successful, but Congressional Budget Office data shows the opposite. Between 1979 and 2005, the income of the bottom 99 percent of U.S. households grew 21 percent after taxes, a rate of less than one percent a year, not enough to keep up with inflation.
But during that same period, the after-tax income of the richest one percent of Americans grew by 225 percent. In 1979, the richest one percent made eight times as much as the typical middle-class family. In 2005, the richest made 21 times as much as the middle-class. The data shows that the inequality between the rich and the poor broadened the tax cuts were too efficient for the rich. The American dream in the 21st century
In the modern American society the faith in the American dream is declining. Zachary Karabell in his article “American Dream May Have Waned for Some, But Lives On for Many” claims that opinion about the American dream’s existence appears to be split 50-50. In spite of this the lost in faith is much more emphasized in the press. The skepticism grows and it is mainly because of the Great Recession. The financial and opportunity differences between the poor and rich which started under Raegen deepen.
A recent New York Times study confirms the inequalities, it shows that income mobility greatly depends on what part of the U.S. you live in. As Karabell have put in his other article” A new American dream for a new American century” “Those who live in metropolitan areas, as well as those with more higher education and wealthier parents, have significantly more upward mobility than many in rural areas.” These obstacles to the upward movement on the “income ladder” is something truly against the American dream.
Those who did not lose faith in the dream completely, redefined it. The survey, conducted by GFK Custom Research for Credit.com, found that most respondents (27.9%) said the American Dream is retiring financially secure at 65, though coming in at second place, 23% defined it as being debt-free. The other options were owning a home (18.2%), graduating from college or paying off your student loans (6.6%) and joining the 1% (4.3%). The responses were rounded out by: other (11.4%), none (0.2%) and don’t know/no response (8.5%).
The old definition of the American dream was two and a half thriving, college-bound kids, a dog or cat and not one, but two cars in the garage that were owned outright, finally and most importantly owning a house according to Adam Levin (“The New American Dream: It’s Not What You Think”) As we can see the new generation have much less expectation, the dream would come into reality if they could achieve basic financial stability.
To conclude, the American dream is an as old idea as the country itself. It went through hardships erstwhile and thrived after them, what changed is that Western-Europe closed up in providing equality of opportunity so that America lost its uniqueness in this respect. Stating the American dream’s death is maybe premature, but in the long run its distinctness as a land of potential and possibility will fade out, and becomes one out of my where the individual can realize his/her dreams.