The American Dream in Modern Society

In 1931, author James Truslow Adams published “The Epic of America,” which is believed to include the first documented use of the term "The American Dream.” Truslow defined it as “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone […] 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.1

Truslow Adams hedged his position when using the qualifier “merely” in describing Americans’ dreams of “motor cars and high wages,” perhaps knowing that for many Americans, cars and money would become large components of the American Dream. In fact, a lesson plan for teachers prepared by the United States Library of Congress describes the American Dream of WWII veterans as a dream “to settle down, to have a home, a car and a family.”2

Since then, the American Dream has broadly consisted of four categories: a job, a family, a house, and a car. But, again, those are categories—not specific things. So what does the American Dream look like today?

So perhaps it can be concluded that with regard to jobs, The American Dream today really depends on the dreamer (or, at least the age of the dreamer).

A Job

Many opinion pieces and surveys suggest that Millennial professionals are “job-hoppers.” For instance, CNN referenced a recent survey by LinkedIn in asserting “the new normal is for Millennials to jump jobs four times in their first decade out of college. That's nearly double the bouncing around the generation before them did.”3

In fact, the idea that young professionals are no longer interested in holding down the same job for very long has become so prevalent that many publications are not just observing it, but extolling the many virtues of job-hopping. A recent article in Fast Company, titled “You Should Plan on Switching Jobs Every Three Years for the Rest of Your Life,” breaks it down as such: “Workers who stay with a company longer than two years are said to get paid 50% less, and job-hoppers are believed to have a higher learning curve, be higher performers, and even to be more loyal, because they care about making a good impression in the short amount of time they know they’ll stay with each employer.”4

Of course, statistics may appear to be cut-and-dry, but they rarely are. ESPN’s statistics-based website, FiveThirtyEight (which covers everything from politics to sports), took a look into the concept of Millennial job-hoppers and concluded that it was actually quite the opposite from what’s been reported.

“The myth of the job-hopping Millennial is just that—a myth. The data consistently show that today’s young people are actually less professionally itinerant than previous generations,” writes Ben Casselman. “Comparing today’s 20-somethings to today’s 30- and 40-somethings misses the point. Younger workers do tend to change jobs more often than older workers, but that’s always been true.”5

So perhaps it can be concluded that with regard to jobs, the American Dream today really depends on the dreamer (or, at least the age of the dreamer).

So while the American Dream may be evolving with regard to family, it doesn’t appear to be growing.


A Family

As young Americans are (debatably) playing the field more with their jobs before deciding on a long-term plan, they seem to be doing the same when it comes to settling down and getting married.

The U.S. Census indicates that in 1950, the average age of marriage for women was 20. For males it was 24. By the year 2000, the average ages were 25 and 26 for women and men, respectively.6 And by the next decade, the Huffington Post reported, “the average age for Americans getting married has reached a historic high—27 for women and 29 for men.”7

Or consider this statistic that the Huffington Post reported on using data from Pew Research: “Only 26 percent of 18- to-33-year-olds are married. In comparison, 36 percent of Generation X, 48 percent of Baby Boomers and 65 percent of the members of the Silent Generation were married during that same age range.”8

The data from the U.S. Census, with regard to families with children, correspond with these findings: “Between 1970 and 2012, the share of households that were married couples with children under 18 halved from 40 percent to 20 percent. The proportion of one-person households increased by 10 percentage points between 1970 and 2012, from 17 percent to 27 percent.”9

Remember the old saying about the American Dream involving having 2.5 kids? That was actually close to the truth in 1970, when married American couples had an average of 2.25 kids. By 2015, that number fell to below two.10 So while the American Dream may be evolving with regard to family, it doesn’t appear to be growing. 

A Car

Perhaps James Truslow Adams didn’t need to say “merely” when he said the American Dream didn’t include cars. As it turns out, maybe it really doesn’t. In today’s world, cars mean less and less to Americans. An article in Fast Company’s Co.Exist reported on this phenomenon, writing: “This generation’s interests and priorities have been redefined in the last two decades, pushing cars to the side while must-have personal technology products take up the fast lane.”

And while many have assumed the reason is because of the economy, as it turns out, that might not be the case at all. “Baby Boomers [...] gained their independence and individuality from movies, music, cars, and motorcycles; older teens and young adults today are expressing their freedom through social channels—these are their new wheels and they get the keys now starting at about age nine,” the Co.Exist article states.11

The numbers are so plain that in 2013, The New York Times published an article called “The End of Car Culture,” stating: “Recent studies suggest that Americans are buying fewer cars, driving less, and getting fewer licenses as each year goes by [...] Has America passed peak driving?”12

In this case, perhaps the American Dream has been revised from “personal vehicle” to “personal device.” 

A House

“The American Dream has long been associated with the gratification and security of a comfortable home within the picturesque borders of a white-picket fence,” writes Paul Golden of the National Endowment for Financial Education (NEFE). However, in a joint survey the NEFE conducted with Harris, they found that homeownership, as a goal, is on the decline. “In 2011, 17 percent said homeownership was their most-important financial goal, compared to just 13 percent in the latest findings” (from 2014).13

Homeownership rates bear these findings out. A recent article from CNBC reports that “the U.S. homeownership rate fell to 63.4 percent in the second quarter of 2015, according to the U.S. Census. That is down from 63.7 percent in the first quarter and from 64.7 percent in the same quarter of 2014.” These aren't merely incremental fluctuations. Zoom out, and as CNBC notes, this “marks the lowest homeownership rate since 1967.”14

Since less people are buying homes, more people are renting. The New York Times reports that as homeownership has fallen, there has been “a boom in rentals and a significant rise in the cost of renting. On average, the number of new rental households has increased by 770,000 annually since 2004 […] making 2004-14 the strongest 10-year stretch of rental growth since the late 1980s.” And as the Times notes, these are not all Millennials.15

So What Are We Dreaming Of?

In the 85 years since Truslow Adams coined “The American Dream,” its meaning has changed with the times. So, what has since become an important fixture of the new American Dream? According to the aforementioned NEFE and Harris Poll survey, the answer may be retirement. 

Indeed, even though many Americans expect to retire later16, Americans are more focused than ever on making sure they have enough money to actually do it and enjoy it. The NEFE and Harris Poll survey found that “50 percent of American adults say the top financial goal that is most important for them to achieve in their lifetime is having enough money for retirement.” 

In positing that the American Dream meant a richer and fuller life for everyone, perhaps Truslow Adams—like the current crop of professionals in America—dreamed of a nice, well-earned, and well-planned-for retirement.