EnlargeH. Armstron Roberts/CORBIS The
American Dream has long evoked the idea that the next generation will
have a better life than the previous one. Today, many Americans feel
that dream is in jeopardy.
The American Dream is a crucial thread in this country's tapestry, woven through politics, music and culture.
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.
But three years after the worst recession in almost a century, the American Dream now feels in jeopardy to many.
town of Lorain, Ohio, used to embody this dream. It was a place where
you could get a good job, raise a family and comfortably retire.
you can see what it is. Nothing," says John Beribak. "The shipyards are
gone, the Ford plant is gone, the steel plant is gone." His voice
cracks as he describes the town he's lived in his whole life.
mean, I grew up across the street from the steel plant when there was
15,000 people working there," he says. "My dad worked there. I worked
there when I got out of the Air Force. It's just sad." Uniquely American
American Dream is an implicit contract that says if you play by the
rules, you'll move ahead. It's a faith that is almost unique to this
country, says Michael Dimock of the Pew Research Center.
Germans or French are asked the same questions about whether it's
within all of our power to get ahead, or whether our success is really
determined by forces outside our control, most German and French
respondents say, 'No, success is really beyond our control,' " Dimock
In the wake of the recession, that sentiment is now growing in this country.
think the American Dream for the average man doesn't exist any more,"
retiree Linden Strandberg says on a recent visit to the Smithsonian
American History museum in Washington, D.C.
Strandberg family story has been repeated millions of times in the last
century. His parents immigrated from Sweden in the 1920s for economic
opportunity. Linden grew up and worked at the phone company in Chicago
for 35 years.
"I wasn't smart enough to go to
college, so I wanted to get a steady job with decent pay," he says.
"With my overtime I was able to buy a house, take trips to Europe and
visit relatives there. I don't think a young person — woman or man —
coming out of high school now could ever achieve that."
sense that the contract is threatened intrigued political scientist
John Kenneth White of Catholic University. "We have a lack of confidence
by many Americans in the future of the country," says White, who edited
a collection of essays called The American Dream in the 21st Century.
crisis of confidence is not just because the economy is bad. In fact,
the American Dream flowered at a time when the economy was at its worst.
you go back to the Great Depression where the American Dream originated
as a concept, strikingly enough, there was still hope and optimism
about the future," White says. A Long History Of Optimism
In 1931, author James Adam wrote a book with the working title The American Dream. Ultimately it was retitled The Epic of America. Historians say that text marked the American Dream's emergence into the spotlight.
the underlying themes had been bubbling up through the American psyche
for much longer. In 1925, F. Scott Fitzgerald opened his iconic novel The Great Gatsby with these lines: In
my younger and more vulnerable years, my father gave me some advice
that I've been turning over in my mind ever since. Whenever you feel
like criticizing anyone, he told me, just remember that all the people
in this world haven't had the advantages that you've had.
The American motifs of growth and optimism even stretch back as far as the Constitutional Convention.
chair in which Washington sat had a sun, and the question was asked, is
it rising or setting?" White says. "And the framers answered that
question by saying it's a rising sun."
that time, the American Dream was not available to everyone in the
country. Black people were kept as slaves. Women were not allowed to
vote or own property.
The story of the 20th century is one of the American Dream gradually being extended to more of the population.
Aaron Copland, a gay Jewish son of immigrants, captured the expansive
optimism of the American Dream in 1942, in his "Fanfare for the Common
Six years later, the gospel singer
Mahalia Jackson expressed her faith that blacks will "Move on Up a
Little Higher." The single became an overnight sensation — the
best-selling gospel record to date.
Barbecues with the neighbors? Volunteering? Enjoying your garden? Share your American Dream with us.
In 2009, President Obama looked back across
those decades as he took the oath of office. He described his
inauguration as a fulfillment of the American Dream, where "a man whose
father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local
restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath."
Obama embodies the American Dream in a powerful and specific way, this
is a theme that every president and would-be president adopts in some
On the campaign trail, GOP
presidential candidate Mitt Romney talks about how his father grew up
poor. "Only in America could a man like my dad become governor of a
state where he once sold paint from the trunk of his car," he says.
in America" is a universal phrase in domestic politics. The challenge
for politicians today is to convince Americans that the phrase still
applies — that hard work and dedication still guarantee success. Skepticism Grows
faith is faltering, especially among the poor, says pollster Dimock.
"Lower income whites and lower income African-Americans are more
skeptical about the American Dream. Higher income blacks are pretty
optimistic about the American Dream, as are higher income whites."
cynical as this may seem, the numbers suggest that the people most
likely to believe in the American Dream today are those who've already
"There's a certain truth to
that," Dimock says. "There are people struggling. And what you're seeing
especially right now are people who feel like they played the game the
right way, like they did what they were supposed to do, and the rules
they thought they could play by and be OK have changed on them somehow."
statistics validate those feelings. According to the Census Bureau, an
average man working full time made 10 percent less money last year than
he did a decade ago.
The question for this
country is, can the dream be restored? And if it can't, what does that
mean for our identity as Americans? Or, as the poet Langston Hughes put
it, "What happens to a dream deferred?"