What is the “American Dream” these days? Is it in danger?

The idea has been around for centuries, but in 1931 James Truslow Adams gave the American Dream its name and modern definition:  “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”.  Make Adams’ language more gender inclusive, and it’s still a good working definition.  But is it still relevant, even in a high cost-of-living area like Silicon Valley?

Even in 1931, the American Dream had its skeptics:  “too many of us…have grown weary and mistrustful of it”.  Is it just a catchy brand name for American materialism?  “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.”

Twenty years ago I would have winced at the words “American Dream”, even though I’d seen examples of it in my own family.  It was an old-fashioned idea, I thought, hyped and no longer relevant.  But selling homes in Silicon Valley, often working with first-time buyers, many of them not born in this country but with a deeper understanding of what it offers than I had, made me an unapologetic believer.  What does the Dream look like now, almost ninety years after Adams defined it?

Something called the 2017 Hearth State of the American Dream Report, by “fintech” start-up Hearth, may give us some answers, or at least give me some material for a post.  I can’t vouch for its accuracy or methodology, but the report does make for interesting reading.

What’s the number one element of the American Dream today?  “Owning a home I love”, according to 19 percent of those surveyed, and if you think that’s improbable or downright corny, you haven’t seen the look on a homebuyer’s face when he or she closes escrow.

Homeownership is tough to achieve here in Silicon Valley, ironic considering that the Valley might seem to be the embodiment of the Dream–and it most definitely is, if you have the right skills and the right attitude.  Nineteen years of working with homebuyers suggests that, by itself, having in-demand skills isn’t enough.  Nor is the right attitude–there’s still that little matter of being financially qualified, a challenge here even in 1998–but attitude is an essential ingredient.

Since the need for shelter is fundamental, it’s not surprising that housing is also second on the list:  for 15 percent, “affording rent and living expenses without hardship” is part of the Dream.  Another area where many of the Valley’s residents aren’t doing so well.

Further down the list are:

  • starting a family (14%)
  • finding a fulfilling career (14%)
  • sending my child to college (10%)
  • building retirement savings (9%)
  • being able to afford luxuries (7%)
  • owning a car (5%)
  • earning more than my parents (3%) (a surprisingly low ranking)
  • owning a pet (2%)

The headline news is that 75 percent of respondents think the American Dream is at risk, and only one in five say they’re living it.  It sounds alarming (and it may be alarming) but another way to interpret this is that three in four don’t take the American Dream for granted, a good thing.  Even better, most of us haven’t given up, with more than one in three saying they’ve achieved at least a part of the Dream, and another three in ten saying it’s within reach.

All this reminds me that two generations ago one of my ancestors, an immigrant with few skills but a survivor’s attitude, checked most of the boxes of the American Dream–not once, but twice, first as a young woman, then as a single mother in her 50s who’d lost everything to the Great Depression.  It’s a remarkable story, yet not uncommon.

Could she do that today?  It’s a question that, even then, could be answered only on a case-by-case basis.

copyright © John Fyten 2017





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