The American Dream: Where Has It Been, Where Is It Now?

“A long-overdue checkup on the pride and joy of America.”

The “American Dream:” two words that have transcended all social and political boundaries and taken root in the crevices of all who sought a better life for themselves and their loved ones. 

Long considered the national ‘ethos’ of the United States, the American Dream is a concept created by Americans as a means to heighten the reputability of the nation, separating it from other countries in terms of prosperity and opportunity. 

With the centuries that have passed since the foundation of this country, how has this deeply ingrained aspect of American culture evolved since its birth? 

A Brief History

Although only coined in 1931 by James Truslow Adams, the “American Dream” was born the moment settlers arrived in America. From John Winthrop’s “A City Upon A Hill” sermon to Afghan refugees fleeing to the United States, the definition of the American Dream has largely shifted in accordance with its level of achievability. 

Origins of the American Dream date back to the very first settlers, as they came to America intending to create a greater nation than their origins. Puritans, a major demographic of the first wave of immigration, fled to the Americas when heavy religious persecution thrashed across Europe. Seeking religious tolerance for their community, the foundation of equality and freedom of religion was established as early as the 17th century. Many of the earliest American colonies sprouted from roots founded on the principle of religious freedom, such as Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, and Maryland.

The concept of the American Dream generally consists of equality of opportunity, individual liberties, and the belief that hard work leads to economic prosperity. Different aspects grow and wane during different periods of history, and in turn have garnered the attention of different groups in time. 

In 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt articulated the goals of the United States under the “four freedoms:” the freedom of speech, the freedom of worship, the freedom from want, and the freedom from fear. As empowering as the message may appear, taking a look into the deeper context exposes Roosevelt’s true intentions— to rile up nationalism as he fully commits the United States to the Allied cause in World War II.

The American Dream represented the freedom of belief for the Chinese fleeing after the Tiananmen massacre of 1989, freedom from fear for Afghan refugees retreating from their war-torn country, and equal opportunity for those who rushed to California during the Gold Rush of 1749 and the Mexican workers seeking to cross the Mexico–United States border to this very day. 

Whether or not these expectations of America were met, the widespread perception of America as a superior nation of liberty and justice attracted millions to leave their motherland for a new life.

Varying Origins, Varying Interpretations: the Multifaceted Perception of the American Dream

In the words of James Truslow Adams, the man who coined the term ‘American Dream’, the American Dream is “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… 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.”

With the first official definition emphasizing that “high wages” had no part in the ideology, the current perception of America has everything to do with job availability and social mobility. As it turns out, the American Dream has never been a concrete philosophy; each individual had differing views on what life in America truly meant.

In 2009, a poll conducted by the New York Times and CBS News revealed that, according to the American people, the American Dream was alive and well, despite the fact that an economic recession plagued the early 21st century. 

It was not the fact that people were so blind to the current situation, but rather that the definition of the American Dream had once again shifted with the times; interviews conducted on the streets revealed that the most important aspect of the American Dream was natural rights, rather than owning a lavish mansion and expensive cars. 

In order to carry on the guise of American superiority, Americans have repeatedly bent themselves over backward to appear content with the current state of their country. It’s time to address where the United States truly lies in terms of freedom and equal opportunity.

Real People Talk: What’s the Current Consensus?

What's your definition of the American Dream?

Eva Sinelnikov, Age 17, New York: “I think the American Dream is the idealized perspective of the possible opportunities available in the US, from an immigrant or non-American’s point of view.”

Isabella Folchetti, Age 16, New York: “The American Dream is shaped by insatiability; we want what we want and we will continue to long until that desire is fulfilled. The funny thing is that once we are granted that long-desired entity, it loses its enchantment, and the void of need which was filled temporarily becomes uprooted. We have obtained the 14k gold ring, so now it is time that we chase for the 24 karat gold; we have scored that blonde-locked girl, or hazel-eyed ‘charmer’ and thus we disregard their presence and begin the chase for a new love interest. Needless to state, the American Dream is analogous to insatiability. It is not a set image, as in we settle in a well-off home, drive a specific automobile, send our children or attend ourselves to academically rigorous and fulfilling institutions, earn an honorable sum of money that grants us vacations in the Caribbean: rather, it is an image that evolves to meet the capacity of our greed. We could have met all of our desires, purchased the a home in the utmost (upscale) neighborhood, yet we would still find another thing to desire or long for; there is no winning, there is no finish line, it is an infinite race with greed and insatiability, whereupon that “finish line” gets pushed farther and farther and extends the race.”

Do you believe the American Dream has held true in the past? Does it still hold true now?

Eva Sinelnikov, Age 17, New York: “Being a child of immigrants, who came to the US due to hardships in their home country in hope of greater opportunity, I think the American Dream somewhat holds true. My parents have accomplished incredible things in their new lives here and have set me and my siblings up for such success that could not have been achieved in Russia (their home country). I also believe, though, that the level of American opportunities that are accessible to people— especially in the past, but now as well— are intertwined with racial and ethnic background of the people striving for them.”

Isabella Folchetti, Age 16, New York: “I think that the American Dream in, say, the 20th century, contrasts starkly from the American Dream today. In the past, specifically following the second world war, consumerism began to rise, and the economy was re-stimulated after an economically plaguing recession. With this, families were able to pick up and move out of the city towards the “southern belt,” where suburbs such as Levittown would be established. The “American Dream” in that time period was to be well-off enough to afford an automobile, move out of the slums of the cities and into the suburbs, raise a family--preferably one boy and one girl--and maintain a bread-winning (man) to housewife (woman) dynamic between the husband and wife. A simple dream based off of a set lifestyle, that, once achieved, would not further extend into what could be achieved next or obtained. 

In the present day, there is no set image for the American Dream, and the only common factors are insatiability and wealth. We work to maintain a certain amount of wealth or respect, and once we have reached that level of wealth that we longed for, we work to become even wealthier, not in a diligent manner, but rather to honor our craving for more than we have and not recognize what has already been served to us on a silver platter. For why eat off of a silver platter when you could feast off of a gold one? 

The simplicity of suburbanization and a certain lifestyle or depiction of the American Dream has been thrown out of the window, specifically with the introduction of multimedia, because it is highlighted through those platforms that there is no limit to wealth and gluttony and you can or should continue to work your way up the social ladder in order to achieve that unlimited wealth which one longs for; there is no end goal, there is no one depiction of the “American Dream,” which allows for interpretation and creativity, but then also opens (it) up to desire which cannot be fulfilled and a constant chase for more.”

(For non-Americans) How do you perceive the American Dream? Do people in your country have a positive or negative view of the United States?

Tanusha Paine, Age 15, India: “So you see, here in India, many people aspire to go abroad after school and college. I won't say that I am an exception. I don't really know if the standard of teaching differs in both countries, but Indians choosing to go abroad has a history of its own.

India was a colony of Britain for almost 200 years, from 1857 to 1947. The British primarily introduced western education in India, founded the heritage Colleges and opened the job market. It was them who encouraged top students to pursue education in renowned European universities like Oxford, Cambridge and all. After WWII and India's subsequent freedom, people began to travel to the US, which had become one of the most dominating world powers by now. This is where I think the whole American Dream thing came from.

It's not entirely true though, that the American Dream was absent during the colonial period. In fact, one of India's first female physicians Anandi Bai Joshi graduated from the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania.

Now coming to the present, many of my friends wish to go to the States after school or college to pursue higher education. Personally, I still have mixed opinions of this whole thing. I am someone who believes that opportunity, particularly in academics, is mainly a product of your own knowledge and education, irrespective of the environment in which you learn. [The] environment does help a person to grow as well as a human being if not academically.”

The Bottom Line

The endorsement of the American Dream has long been backed by the higher echelons of the social ladder, proving that while the American Dream is still possible, the idea that anyone can be successful regardless of their economic, social, and ethnic background is an over-optimistic reach, as one’s innate circumstances remains a major factor in their success.

Many immigrants face difficulties in assimilating into American society; the statistics brought up in the source go to show the extent to which this dissociation and lack of guidance can lead to the lack of high education and therefore high-paying jobs amongst immigrants. 

Lower-income families often do not have the privilege to prioritize education, as children in the family hold much greater responsibility compared to children in well-off families. For example, a child whose parents work from sunrise to sunset may need to care for their younger siblings, or work a job on weekdays, making school and academics another burden on that child.

Statewide surveys have shown that the African American demographic has the highest percentage of people who believe that the American Dream never held true. African Americans have a long history of abuse and oppression under the domination of white supremacy and many continue to struggle with the consequences decades after the end of segregation, going to show how one’s ethnic and social background does play a major role in the economic opportunities provided to them. 

Surveys also reveal that only those who have achieved some level of success endorse the American Dream, rather than the people at whom the philosophy is directed— the working class. This selection bias ultimately leads to a large majority of the rich backing the idea of the American Dream, as they have already achieved, without considering the perspective of others.

Privilege still weighs heavily on the topic of the American dream; immigrants and minorities often start with little privileges, while people with ancestral wealth and certain privileges find “achieving” the American Dream to be much easier. 

Taken as a whole, the shifting definition of the American Dream leaves much up for circumstance and individual interpretation. Because of this, those who believe they have achieved the American Dream are not necessarily referring to the original dream of economic success, but rather more philosophical freedoms. 

As the younger generations come face to face with both the favorable and nasty aspects of the United States, it’s essential for us to take a step back every once in a while and evaluate whether the American Dream truly stands “American.”

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