But is that really true? Are we all really being held back by some invisible force, or has our idea of what the American Dream should be just become so skewed that we’re chasing after something that never really existed in the first place?
The Origin of the American Dream
The term “the American Dream” is credited to James Truslow Adams who wrote in 1931: “Life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement regardless of social class or circumstances of birth.”
America was seen as this place where parents could take their children to have better lives and more opportunity. And for the most part, it stayed that way for decades.
Towards the second half of the century, America was at the top of her game. We had just won two World Wars and more-or-less established ourselves as the front-runner in nearly every industry.
My home-state of Michigan is a shining example. Factories were being built and jobs were plentiful. The average person could leave high school to go work for one of the Big 3. They could stay there until retirement, and then their pension would take care of them for the rest of their lives.
While growing up, I can’t tell you how many of my friends had parents and grandparents where only one adult had to work, and yet they still could afford all of life’s necessities and then some. Many even went so far as to pay off their homes or own vacation cabins up north.
But then as time went on, things changed.
Where the Path Has Taken a Turn
At the root, there have been two incredible forces grabbing onto each of our arms and pulling us in opposing directions. And it’s these two polar opposites that have made things so frustrating for many.
The first is globalization.
Though there is arguably nothing wrong with globalization, it did result in a change in American economics. The ability to buy and sell anywhere in the world was a huge punch in the face to the false sense of security we had developed.
Domestic companies were suddenly flush with competition. Giants like GM and Sears were no longer on top. Nearly anything you could ever want can be imported from places like China, India, or another third-world place. Even service and technology oriented positions can now be outsourced. Think of the last time you’ve called a Customer Service hotline and spoke to someone in the U.S.
Higher profits demands that you operate in places with lower wages. And it also demands that you get your consumers to spend more.
This brings us to the second influence: Advertising.
“We must shift America from a needs to a desires culture. People must be trained to desire, to want new things even before the old had been entirely consumed. We must shape a new mentality in America. Man’s desires must overshadow his needs.”
As a society, we are all suckers when it comes to falling for advertising. We believe nearly every piece of BS that flashes before our eyes convincing us that we need more and more stuff.
We’ve been up-sold on nearly every facet of our lives.
- We think we need bigger houses when our elders did just fine with houses that were an average of 1,000 square feet less 40 years ago.
- We finance these homes with mortgages that so ridiculous that they brought down the near-collapse of our economy in 2008 with the Housing Bust.
- We’re led to believe that we need to keep up with the Joneses and their $80,000 SUV’s; a price-tag that will generate car payments greater in size than what most people pay for their mortgage.
- We need the latest $600+ iPhone every two years, unlimited data plans, reservations at the coolest restaurants, the finest clothes, etc.
And we do this all no matter what the cost. We do this despite the fact that the median income in the US has barely moved over the past 50 years; floating somewhere between $50,000 and $60,000 for quite some time.
Worst of all, we do this while not realizing for one second that the rules of the retirement game have changed. There are barely any golden pensions left out there. Your nest egg is now only what you make of it. And if you save nothing, than you’ll have nothing to show for all your years of hard work.
So what are we supposed to do?
We Need to Shift the Way We Think
Go back to the definition of the American Dream and ask yourself what “life should be better and richer and fuller” really means.
The American Dream was never about smart-phones, status cars, and having the most amount of square-footage. And it sure as hell never meant belonging to the Dollar Shave club or getting Birch Box packages sent to your door.
We’ve got to stop and re-access what we’re doing. We’ve got to take a step back and ask ourselves if spending 50% of our income on a mortgage or having a closet full of shoes we never wear is reasonable.
We’ve got to realize that a lot of this is just an illusion. Most of what we see in advertising are just glimpses into a world that very few people will ever get to truly live. Some might be able to fake it for a little while, but sooner or later the bottom will fall out. Sooner or later the expense of having never funded their retirement plans will come due, and they’ll be left with nothing.
Instead, we need to focus on what really matters: Ourselves.
- Why not put our efforts towards doing things that will actually make us feel fulfilled? Why not set some goals and go after life experiences instead of simply accumulating more material possessions?
- How about taking responsibility for our own actions, and honestly saying to ourselves I am in control of my own financial future?
- Can we start using tax-deferred savings opportunities to our advantage and keeping $4,500 for ourselves every year instead of giving it over to the IRS?
- How about realizing that literally every dollar saved is like earnings seven dollars in the future?
- How about building a reasonably-sized nest egg that will one day generate enough passive income for us to never have to work again if we don’t want to?
Life Can Still Be Better
The notion that our lives can be better is still an opportunity that awaits all of us. There American Dream is still a place that we can get to. We just need to realize that the path has changed and the rules are different. What’s dead is this false ideology that we can (and should) have everything we’ve ever craved. We need to stop letting advertising play into our envy and blur what it means to have succeeded in life.
A true success is someone who makes peace with themselves and with others. Only then can we improve for the right reasons.
Only then can things really be richer and fuller for everyone.
Readers – What is your vision of the American Dream? Is it still attainable, and if so, how do you believe we can get there? Do you feel that this notion has been skewed at all by main stream media?
Featured image courtesy of Flickr