Is The American Dream Dead?

In describing why business models must change, Kay Plantes pointed out a study that indicates 78% of respondents believed the American Dream has died.

This has bothered me all weekend.

I believe that most positive change comes from optimists building what they believe is possible. (Have you ever worked with a pessimist trying to build what they believe is impossible? It makes for a long day.)

Could it really be that the the U.S. is depending on 22% of the population for that optimism? Maybe that is enough in Ayn Rand’s world , but I like the odds when more folks are on board.

So this evening, rather than thinking about how much I enjoyed watching Mr. Burns drink a Coke during the Superbowl, I’m thinking about what is the American Dream. The study by Context-Based Group softens the blow a bit by indicating respondents felt the meaning of the American Dream might have been hijacked by materialism of the past few decades – so maybe it is not dead, maybe it is changing.

What is the American Dream?

For me, the answer is personal but I think rings true:

The opportunity to better myself as I choose and establish a launching pad so my children will have even better opportunities than I.

There is no question that the recent financial upheaval has shot a few bullets at people’s ideas of betterment.

  • The idea that Wall Street can make everyone rich.
  • The idea that we all can borrow ourselves to riches.
  • The idea real estate always goes up.

Good bubbles to pop in my opinion, but when did the American Dream become only about wealth.

Maybe the American Dream has been lost because we fear for our children.

  • The threat of Global Warming.
  • The threat of pollution driven illness.
  • The loss of good jobs.
  • The burdon of debt on our government and us.

And yet we live in amazing times.

The tools of betterment and more are available more widely, across more socioeconomic groups than ever before. It seems that anyone can change the world.

So if the American Dream was to consume till we drop — Good riddance.

If the American Dream involved success without hard work — I’m glad we’re waking up.

If the American Dream is the chance to do something extraordinary no matter where we are in life — Then sign me up.

I think the American Dream can be as alive for my children as it was for me.

But only if we believe. (Shall we clap? Will Tinkerbell live?)

What does the American Dream mean to you? (And is it Alive or Dead?)

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26 Responses to Is The American Dream Dead?

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  2. Brad Shorr says:

    The American Dream dead? Balderdash. I have a few clients – including one I just had an exciting 3-hour meeting with – that are so excited about the future, whose businesses are on the verge of amazing breakthroughs, that I’m filled with optimism just thinking about it. This story is told thousands of time over all around the country, I’m sure of it. People may be down in the dumps right now because the economy has bludgeoned them for the past couple years – understandable. So sure, superficially we might be pessimistic at the moment. But our underlying optimism is dormant, not dead. When the recovery sets in, all these statistics will flip. You can count on it.
    .-= Brad Shorr´s last blog ..Design Flaws =-.

  3. Rosa Say says:

    Well said Fred.

    I think the American Dream is evolving and growing up, things which naturally happen (and must happen) as we humans change —hopefully evolving and growing up for the better, and so I concur with the final statements in your posting. We are emerging from a very tough time, but there are so many encouraging signs that we have learned from the experience.

    Something else I think is very exciting, filling me with optimism, is our growing universality as technological advances in communication makes our geographic differences much less relevant: We are no longer talking about an “American” dream as much as a growth spurt in our entrepreneurial spirit, self reliance, and universal tenacity. Our shared values are making us stronger, and they prove that together, we really ARE better.
    .-= Rosa Say´s last blog ..The Care and Feeding of your Talking Story Subscription =-.

  4. kay plantes says:

    I don’t believe that the American Dream is dead, but I do believe it is being redefined from money only to one that deals with a wider dimension of happiness. I love your definition of the dream, Fred. As an economist, it is upsetting to realize there is less upward social mobility than in the past. I believe the root cause of this are school systems/community systems that fail to support poor children as well as they did in past generations. In other words, we are building inequality into earlier years than we did in the past. Obama’s efforts to transform our PK-12 education is very exciting as a result.
    .-= kay plantes´s last blog ..Market disruptions demand business model innovation =-.

  5. Lennie Rose says:

    I’m excited about our future and because I’m an American, I get to be excited about it in the open – if I want to learn more about it, I have the freedom to study it. If I don’t like the direction of global warming or health care – I get to fight for it. It was never MY dream to have 2.2 children, live in a house with a dog and retire at 65. We’re in the era of exposure, outrage, revamp and rebuild. We have incredible resources of people and talent who need new outlets for their expertise and we need to create them.

    The credit coma has sobered us up – and now we’ve got to clean up the mess that the vultures sold us and we bought. But I’m up for it and that’s the dream. To build it better and pass it on to our children to keep it moving in the right direction.

    As a country, we have been a guiding light before and we can do it again.
    .-= Lennie Rose´s last blog ..The Formula For Success – Entrepreneur Style =-.

  6. Brad, Great to hear your optimism and of the opportunity around you. I think it’s comments like this that can be the tinder and match for building optimism all around us.

  7. Hi Rosa, The more barriers fall the easier it is for people to lift off! I like your optimism.

  8. HI Kay, the school years are so critically important and I’m glad they are continuing to receive government attention. But I worry that a focus on teachers and school buildings will miss the larger issue of the neighborhood values that make it difficult for a school to operate or a teacher to succeed. Building parental belief in education and opportunity may change our schools more than any other investment. Maybe the shift in the American Dream you point out is a step in that direction. The belief in something bigger than yourself, a goal to work towards that is bigger than dollar bills. I hope so. I certainly agree with your post that a shift of this kind will demand business models change (and marketing approaches as well.)

  9. Hi Lennie, Change starts with one person standing up and saying “Um, hey lets try this.” From there it is a long haul but in the end individuals do change the world with their ideas and passion. Your optimism is catching! Thank you for commenting.

  10. Love this Fred — “Have you ever worked with a pessimist trying to build what they believe is impossible? It makes for a long day.”

    And agree with Rosa — “evolving and growing up.” It does in a profound way mirror our own individual growing up to recognize ourselves as part of community, as having responsibilities that go beyond our own advancement.

    I don’t think the dream is dead. I do think that the American ego is undergoing a dissolution, and that is a very good thing.
    .-= Dick Richards´s last blog ..A Leadership Plague Is Upon Us =-.

  11. J.D. Meier says:

    I do think there are new rules for the road and we haven’t learned them yet.

    The possibilities in today’s world are amazing. We used to get glimpses of the world around us … now we *feel* the impact.
    .-= J.D. Meier´s last blog ..10 Ways to Go from Good to Great =-.

  12. Now that’s an interesting way to put it: “American ego is undergoing a dissolution.” Given how thoroughly ego can blind us I agree, that is a good thing.

  13. Hi J.D. – Always learning. That’s a good way to be.

  14. LaVonn says:

    Maybe not dead but waiting to pay off the credit cards!

  15. Ahhh, well then there is light at the end of the tunnel. 🙂

  16. Andrew says:


    Down here in Australia, I have grown up to believe that what we call the “Great Australian Dream” revolved around (1) owning your own home; and (2) owning your own small business.

    From what I understand, this is not a great deal different from America – perhaps we copied you guys to some extent as we see to do in so many other facets of life.

    Neither of these dreams is a bad thing, and dreams which revolve around these objectives do seem to reflect an underlying spirit of adventure, independence, initiative and entrepreneurialism, all of which I believe to be very positive qualities.

    That said, dreams defined around these areas are not for everyone. Nor should they be. For those who are so inclined, ownership of one’s one business is a great idea, but equally worthy are dreams revolving around making positive contributions in science, health, education, academia, construction or many of the other worthy occupations and professions according to one’s area of talent and interest.

    Down here, for anyone who is pessimistic about the future, I would point out to them that for all Australia’s faults, not only do we enjoy freedom, democracy, stability and a very high standard of living compared to many parts of the world, but also massive opportunities as a key supplier of resources to China and other growing parts of the world.

    In America, too, when you guys look at the opportunities for your children and grandchildren, you have every right to be bullish. You guys are the single-most powerful and influential country in the world, and will stay that way for the foreseeable future in spite of China’s recent rise. Looking into the future, there are so many ways in which Americans will have opportunities to impact the world in a positive manner. And domestically too, you guys enjoy a wonderful lifestyle, great cultural values, a robust system of democracy, economic, political and social stability on a scale which is the envy of many others around the world, and an adventurous, entrepreneurial and determined spirit which has made you into the country you are today.

    Having never actually been to America, I’m not sure how qualified I am to make informed comment, but to any American who adopts a pessimistic attitude, I would say the same as I would to pessimists down here in Australia – wake up, smell the roses, be thankful for what you have and get active and go about taking advantage of the wonderful range of opportunities on offer.
    .-= Andrew´s last blog ..Blackmail is criminal, not capitalist =-.

  17. Anne Wayman says:

    You said: If the American Dream is the chance to do something extraordinary no matter where we are in life — Then sign me up.

    Amen, and I keep wondering where I can sign up. I fear so much for my grand kids… and the world.

    As an American I keep trying to pick my issues carefully. Currently in addition to sustainability it’s the move to amend the constitution to deny corporations personhood. But that’s only part of the problem, or one of them.

    .-= Anne Wayman´s last blog ..Freelance Writing Jobs For Wednesday, February 17, 2010 =-.

  18. Andrew, Thank you for such a thoughtful analysis and comment. Now I’m really curious, what are all the ‘dreams’ from around the globe? In the U.S. we are indoctrinated at a young age about how the American Dream drove development and opportunity in our country and that in many ways it was somehow unique.

    Of course not.

    Every land must have it’s own set of dreams, and probably most are more similar to your ‘Great Australian Dream’ and my ‘American Dream’ than they are different. Could sharing those similarities and celebrating the differences bring the world a tad bit closer together. I would hope so. You’ve sparked my curiosity.

    And your closing line is fine advice – focusing on the unsolvable and the negative will never get anyone moving. It is belief in the possible that gets us out of bed.

  19. Hi Anne, Sustainability is the issue that will drive prosperity for grandkids around the globe. And sadly the U.S. seems to be focused on taking a follower’s role. Taking up a cause that matters can make one feel so alive! Thanks for commenting.

  20. Andrew says:


    France and Korea might provide an interesting contrast in this regard.

    As I understand it, being a government worker or civil servant is amongst the most preferred occupations for amongst young people in both countries.

    But there is a stark difference between the two countries in the reasons underlying this desire. From what I have heard about the French situation, many nominate this as there preferred path because of a desire for secure employment. By contrast, in Korea, whilst (and probably in a lot of surrounding Asian countries), the desire for security may certainly play a part – they certainly do value ‘structure’ and ‘stability’ in their lives, something which working in government does provide – the primary reason underlying this drive is that civil service is considered to be very honorable in their society, with civil servants enjoying a high social status.

    Whilst the desire for security is natural, I am much more comfortable with the reasons underlying the Korean approach in this regard. Any desire to be in public service should be driven by the desire to make a positive contribution toward society and to rightfully receive a high level of social recognition as a result.

    (P.S. My commentary about the French situation is based on a survey about youth ambitions which I read about four years ago – it is quite possible that this is not entirely reflective of the current situation)
    .-= Andrew´s last blog ..Private security contractors are not paid to stand and watch assaults =-.

  21. Fabulous and thought-provoking, Fred. Brad, LOVE “The American Dream dead? Balderdash.”

    First, technology is advancing at incredible rates. They get shorter and shorter between discoveries. Think how long it took to invent incredible things up to the Ford car and a little after that… not as much and took years.

    Second, American Dream today means fulfilling our hopes and dreams. It doesn’t necessarily mean someone from outside of US coming here to start a business and become rich. That’s old definition.

    Your hopes and dreams can be very different from mine.

    For me, it means having the resources to provide for my family and enjoying the journey rather than shooting for an ultimate destination (other than graduation and college). It means helping my community every chance I get. It means being able to run a successful business (success = salary that lets me provide for my family).
    .-= Meryl K Evans´s last blog ..Books and eBooks: Keep or Purge? =-.

  22. Hi Andrew, Thanks for passing this along. “Stability” and “To Do Good” are common motivating factors around here but it is interesting that different groups see different pathways to those goals. I’m sure that would be true among different individuals around here as well.

  23. Hi Meryl, Great thoughts. I like the idea that we are becoming more aware of the need to find satisfaction on the journey as well as pointing to a goal that seems to make sense. In today’s world the goal can move and change so quickly that the journey never ends. Thanks for commenting.

  24. Pingback: 8 Non-Writing Blogs For Freelance Writers - To Get You Out Of A Rut - Resource Roundup Tuesday

  25. Debbie Yost says:

    I’ve never really thought about this, but I did have the reaction “why is it all about money” when you listed the first few ideas. For me, money is nice, but I don’t know that my kids have to do better than me. Money can only give us so much happiness. I sometimes get frustrated by all the people out there shouting about being your own boss. If we are all our own boss, then who is going to work for us. Personally, I’ve always been more comfortable in the support position. We each have our own personality that makes us right for different jobs or positions. Is the fact that someone works as a checkout person at the grocery store make them less important than the owner? Without good employees, where would we be. And frankly, without the checker how am I going to get my groceries? I think we need to concentrate more on doing something that we believe in and find pride in than in how much money it makes us. If what we do supports our family and gives us a sense of accomplishement then that should fulfill the American Dream, even if that job is collecting other people’s garbage.
    .-= Debbie Yost´s last blog ..Math Teachers =-.

  26. Nicely put Debbie. Family, self satisfaction, meaningful days. Goals that put money to shame sooner or later. Thanks for adding to the conversation.

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