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September 21st, 2011
05:34 PM ET

Are you living the American Dream? Will your children?

Dave Schechter

Senior National Editor

We hear a lot these days about the American dream; that it’s over, that it’s out of reach.

Consider the title of a report from the Pew Economic Mobility Project: “Downward Mobility from the Middle Class: Waking Up from the American Dream.”

Consider this statement from a report by the New America Foundation titled “Losing Middle America”: “America’s existing social contract is inadequate for more and more Americans. While the Great Recession and the housing bubble implosion destroyed the savings of many middle and lower income families and caused mass unemployment, a number of longer term trends have also contributed to the woes of Americans. Stagnating wages, shrinking retirement savings and the loss of defined-benefit plans, rising health care costs that eat into discretionary income, easy credit used to maintain living standards and the subsequent exploding debt of the middle class, and most importantly, fewer decent jobs, have all chipped away at hopes for a better future.”

Two surveys conducted in March of this year measured attitudes toward the American Dream.

In a survey of 1,000 adults age 18 and older with a child under age 18, conducted for the insurance company New York Life, only 41 percent thought that American children will have a better standard of living than their parents.

When the Pew Economic Mobility Project surveyed 2,000 adults, 37 percent said they expected to “reach, as you define it, the American Dream, in your lifetime;” 27 percent did not expect to, 31 percent said they already had and 6 percent were unsure. When asked whether their children “will have a higher standard of living than you did,” 47 percent said yes, down from 62 percent who said yes when the same question was asked two years earlier.

Could the outlook be bleaker? If anything, the American dream holds that the future will be better than today.

Of course, the American dream means something different to each of us. It’s an idea, an image we have in our minds.

It’s a lifestyle, the way you want to live, if not now then in the future. It may be the type of job you want or the kind of neighborhood where you want to live; the model of car that you drive, the vacations you take or the type of schools your children attend. Or maybe it’s something broader, having to do with the values and ideals you hope permeate American society.

If you’ve wondered about the origin of the term “American dream,” it’s attributed to writer and historian James Truslow Adams in his 1931 book “The Epic of America.”

Adams’ 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 a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. 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. . . . The American Dream that has lured tens of millions of all nations to our shores in the past century has not been a dream of material plenty, though that has doubtlessly counted heavily. It has been a dream of being able to grow to fullest development as a man and woman, unhampered by the barriers which had slowly been erected in the older civilizations, unrepressed by social orders which had developed for the benefit of classes rather than for the simple human being of any and every class."

But 80 years later . . .

“The American Dream is being transformed into an absolute nightmare,” Michael Snider wrote in the Business Insider.  “Most of us grew up believing that if we worked really hard in school and that if we stayed out of trouble and that if we did everything that "the system" told us to do that there would be a place for us in the middle class too. Well, it turns out that "the system" is breaking down. There aren't enough good jobs for all of us anymore. In fact, there aren't very many crappy jobs either. Millions are out of work, millions have lost their homes and nearly all of the long-term economic trends just keep getting worse and worse.”

“So is there any hope for the U.S. middle class? No, there is not,” Snider concluded.

“It’s part of a larger phenomenon, of a decline of faith in the American Dream,” said Anya Kamenetz, author of the books “Generation Debt” and “DIY U.” “Homeownership has taken a huge blow, people are questioning the value of a college education, and the idea that America will always be economically dominant is fading away. The assumption of an ever-increasing standard of living is no longer taken for granted . . . There’s little doubt this is going to be the first generation to not do as well materially as their parents.”

“And for my own kids," Kamenetz said, "I don’t necessarily expect them to be highly successful according to the old models. But hopefully I’ll instill them with values that will make them happier.”

That may be the best many of us can hope to do.


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