If you Google “Is the American dream dead?” you get upwards of 26 million results, including some pretty pointed and provocative stories from nearly every major media site in the land. Perusing the articles, it didn’t take long to determine how Americans feel about the answer to that all-important question.
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While there is no single definition of the term, popular opinion is split more or less down the middle. That goes for young people as well. Although they have their whole lives ahead of them, about half of those aged 18 to 29 recently surveyed said that the dream is dead. That is a sobering data point.
Sadly, roughly half the population is wrong. They’ve been sold a bill of goods in terms of the meaning of the phrase and their belief in its attainability, or lack thereof. I’m sure you’re wondering which half I’m referring to, but first, we need to get something out of the way. What is the American dream?
The term was popularized in the 1931 book The Epic of America by James Truslow Adams. The historian offered several variations on the theme, but the one most often sited is, “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement.”
I couldn’t have come up with a better description myself. It’s important to note that the first part of the sentence compares opportunity in America to that of other lands, particularly European. For the most part, it remains true, although it’s certainly not a bad thing that many other nations have spent the past 85 years catching up.
But it’s the second part that many overlook. While the American dream is an egalitarian ideal – equal rights and opportunity for all – it is, in reality, a function of ability and achievement. It’s also determined by other factors Adams failed to mention, most notably upbringing, luck and our own personal choices.
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Many seem to think that the dream is a promise – a guaranteed outcome for a life of hard work. That’s nonsense. First and foremost, it is an ideal. The American dream is aspirational. Second, it is relative to other nations, where position is far more important in determining a life’s outcome. And third, there are, of course, all those other factors.
Adams went on to say, “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."
That often overlooked sentence is very important. Adams was born in Brooklyn, New York to a wealthy family. He got degrees from Brooklyn Polytech and Yale and worked in investment banking before turning to what was presumably his passion, writing about history, for which he received a Pulitzer Prize.
Clearly, Adams was aware that his upbringing played a role. More important, the man was a great writer who knew his words. When he said “American dream,” he did not mean “American promise.” And therein lies the rub.
Half the population has been sold a bill of goods, that the aspirational dream is supposed to be a guaranteed result. And, upon realizing that it’s not, they think it must be a hoax and therefore unattainable. None of which is true. While it is and has always been dependent on many factors, they can be overcome.
Attaining the American dream is a function of intelligence, capability, personal choice, work ethic, achievement, upbringing and luck. And it should come as no surprise that those born into wealth have a better chance than those born into poverty. But that is by no means the only or determining factor. It’s simply a headwind, no more, no less.
If being born into privilege were everything, there would be no Apple, Starbucks, Walmart, Verizon, Oracle, WhatsApp or countless other great companies, all of which were built by entrepreneurs and executives who grew up with nothing but adversity, as I did. And nobody would know the names Steve Jobs, Oprah Winfrey or Ralph Lauren.
The American dream is alive and well and achievable by each and every one of us, except those who believe it’s unattainable and those who choose not to pursue it.