What is the American Dream? (and what happened to it)?

I’m coming up to my fifth month of being on the road, partly inspired by the fantastic book Cashing in on the American Dream: How to retire at 35 by Paul Terhorst. It’s a book that sat on my wishlist for a couple of years, for one simple reason – the word ‘American’ in the title. Although I (and probably most people in the world) am familiar with the concept of the the ‘American Dream’, I wasn’t sure whether the book would be too heavily focused on the American context to be of any use to me. As it turned out, it was extremely relevant, despite its distance from my location in both time (being published over 30 years ago) and space (given my Australian background).

A few days ago, I started to write a post about this book, about how we can all ‘cash in on the American dream’ in some way or another, and the relevance of Terhort’s ideas decades later, in contexts outside America (which I’ll still do in my next post). But this led me to research the very phrase ‘American Dream’, and that turned out to be a whole other (and in some ways, even more interesting!) story.

‘The American Dream’, often credited as being rooted in the works of Benjamin Franklin, was defined by US writer and popular historian James Truslow Adams in 1931 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.’ Importantly, he noted that such a dream may be ‘difficult’ for ‘the European upper classes to interpret adequately… 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.’

Somewhere along the line, however, the vision of the ‘American Dream’ was narrowed, and came to mean owning your own home. College was redefined as the ticket to this specific dream, rather than education being valued as a way to broaden one’s horizons, be personally fulfilled, and contribute to society.

Consumer culture created four ‘American Dreams’ identified by Ownby:

  1. The ‘Dream of Abundance’ – the cornucopia of material goods offered to Americans, making them proud to be the richest society on earth.
  2. The ‘Dream of a Democracy of Goods’ – where everyone has access to the same products regardless of race, gender, ethnicity or class.
  3. The ‘Dream of Freedom of Choice’ – where people can fashion their own lifestyles via an ever-expanding variety of goods.
  4. The ‘Dream of Novelty’ – whereby ever-changing fashions broaden consumer experience and challenge the conservatism of traditional society, culture and politics.

Notably, these definitions, while briefly evoking equality in the second dream, focus much more on buying things than being.

The ‘American’ dream around the world

For me, growing up in Australia, it was the ‘Australian Dream’ or ‘Great Australian Dream’ that I heard the most rhetoric about, a term derived from the American Dream. (Although we did hear a fair bit about the American Dream also, something so common in TV and film it’s considered a trope).

Typically the Australian Dream focused upon ownership of a detached house (often single storey) on a quarter acre suburban block.‘ In many ways, my childhood was an embodiment of this dream – complete with lawn mowing, beach holidays, and a Hills Hoist. As I’ve mentioned before, as an adult, it was somewhat difficult for me to give up this notion of the Australian Dream, and to choose to live in something other than the typical ‘dream home‘. However, fond childhood memories should not be your guiding principle when you have a different family structure and different economic reality.

Prior to the second world war, fewer than half of Australian households owned their own homes, and home ownership truly was best described as a ‘dream‘ – an aspiration or ideal rather than a reality for most. In the two decades following, this figure jumped to 70%. And in spite of frequent items in the media telling us that it is harder than ever to get a foot on the property ladder (a worrying turn of phrase in itself, as it implies an insatiable desire to constantly move on to bigger and better dwellings), these figures do not appear to have changed significantly since.

Of course, other countries have their own dreams too – there’s the closely related New Zealand Dream (which also aspires to a house on a quarter-acre block with a car), a British Dream of sorts (in Margaret Thatcher’s ‘Homes of our own’, described as similar to the American Dream), a Russian Dream (in the sense that the American Dream has fascinated Russians and Boris Yeltsin embraced the ‘American Way’), and the Chinese Dream (described as very similar to the American Dream in its stressing of entrepreneurship and self-made men and women).

All of these ‘dreams’ seem to echo the more recent, more consumerist versions of the American Dream, exemplified by a home, car(s) and possibly, an education (for utilitarian purposes).

For some, pursuing the American Dream meant the adoption of American business practices – in Hungary, where I’m currently located, the introduction of Amway sales in 1991 was described within America as ‘sell[ing] a piece of the American Dream in Hungary‘. For others, it necessitated a move to America – as was the case for Dr. Lazlo Makk, who survived WWII and the 1956 revolution and fled to the US, or educator Kata Fountain, who moved to America in the early 1990s. And yet, for some Americans, the American dream now appears attainable only outside of America, as Colm Fitzgerald’s article Why I left the US to seek my American Dream in Hungary attests.

The European Dream

Not long before we left Australia for our current journey, I had the chance to see Michael Moore’s brilliant film Where to Invade Next. In it, Moore travels the world ostensibly looking to decide where to invade next based on ideas rather than physical resources, {spoiler alert – highlight for details!} only to discover that all of the ideas he profiles actually originated in the US, but were realised elsewhere. As I looked into the American Dream, I couldn’t help but think of his movie.

According to Jeremy Rifkin, author of the The European Dream: How Europe’s vision of the future is quietly eclipsing the American Dream, the ‘European Dream’ is one that values connectivity and respect of human rights above the individual accumulation of wealth.

To me, that sounds a lot like Adam’s much earlier formulation of the American Dream: where ‘life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone‘, and ‘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’.

Adam’s didn’t mention the individual accumulation of wealth. He didn’t mention houses on quarter-acre blocks or cars. In fact, he specifically said ‘It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order’. The only thing I think Adam’s definition got wrong was the assumption that it might be difficult for Europeans to understand. Perhaps at the time, when Europe was characterised by aristocracy even more than it is today, but now, it seems that parts of Europe might be doing a better job of living the broader American dream – the one characterised by egalitarianism rather than consumerism – than Americans (or the rest of us who have pursued our own versions).

The original ‘American Dream’ – the one defined by Adams, and rooted in the works of Benjamin Franklin (who espoused the virtues of frugality and moderation, and who wrote he would rather be described as ‘he lived usefully‘ than ‘he died rich’) was so much bigger than the acquisition of a fancy house or flashy car. 

AmericanDreamDo you subscribe to any of these nationalistic dreams?
What is your dream?

Check out the full documentary HEIST: Who Stole the American Dream.

Today’s featured image is a streetscape I snapped in Budapest on the eve of the US Presidential election (hence the poster headlined ‘Amerikai Rémálom’). Imagine my surprise when I got back home and translated it – ‘American nightmare’. In the background is an apartment with two flags – one of Coca Cola, and one of Hungary.

The title of this post is inspired by one of Bernie Sanders’ speeches ‘What Happened to the American Dream’.

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5 thoughts on “What is the American Dream? (and what happened to it)?

  1. Hi Sarah; great to see the Big Mac Index is back in action and being commented on, also you will find woolworths or coles back home here in the same town having different prices and stores for the exact same item,it depends on if you shop in housing trust areas or rich areas price, fixing at it’s best!!. We see Donald Trump is now President, good for the US economy and us Aussies hope fully better dollar exchange rates. bye for now pete the plumber.

    1. Thanks for your comment Peter about the Big Mac Index post (https://www.enrichmentality.com/whats-the-price-of-bread/) – and for the idea in the first place! ?
      You’re absolutely right about different supermarkets having different prices as well – and I seem to recall a news program showing how in many cases, it was actually the opposite type of price fixing to what we might expect – with poorer areas having more expensive and worse quality goods on offer while the supermarkets in higher socioeconomic areas got the better, cheaper stuff.?
      I’ve just posted a bit more on the American Dream, in light of the recent election, here: https://www.enrichmentality.com/how-can-i-travel-the-world-on-50-a-day/
      Interesting hypothesis regarding the exchange rates… I would have thought that if the US economy goes up as they adopt more protectionist policies that aim to shift more production back to the US, the exchange rate will become less favourable for other countries, but we’ll see. Since Australia has followed suit in outsourcing so much manufacturing etc. there may be a different effect, if we start to produce more things at home too, and some of the trade agreements we (I say “we”, but I mean our politicians) have signed on to, are dismantled. Or, if the American companies do actually move their manufacturing back to the US, the cost of living may increase for us, used to, as we are, cheaply produced goods from China, India and the like. At the moment, everything is in such a state of chaos – from what I’ve seen, pretty much all the markets went down on news of Trump’s election, but at least that means that we didn’t get any massive disparities so far as I can. If there’s one thing the markets hate, it seems to be uncertainty, even more so than bad news, and I think we’re in for an uncertain time ahead! The AUD dropped quite a bit in relation to the USD following the results – still waiting for it to fully recover.
      Take care, and my love to the family!

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