This article was originally published in Profectus Magazine.
A couple of years after arriving in the United States to pursue a graduate degree, I became enamored with the American Dream. This feeling came from a mix of reading success stories of people overcoming tremendous obstacles and seeing success stories in the everyday actions of people striving to be the best at their crafts. These stories included the Founders of the country, who established the republic, and the country itself overcoming slavery during the Civil War and Segregation during the Civil Rights Era. But they also went on to entail entrepreneurial luminaries like Walt Disney or, more recently, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk—all of whom dared to dream big dreams and make countless others dream with them.
As I came to see the United States as a great country—though not without its flaws—it quickly became apparent that talking about the American Dream in a nihilistic and negative way had become all too fashionable. Rather than seeing it as an aspirational ideal, many were treating the dream as a static, unfulfilled promise that makes the country irredeemable. Criticizing the American Dream even seems like a national pastime nowadays, where even comic book classics like Captain America are jumping into the fray.
Is it really a static, unfulfilled promise when we have so many examples of people achieving their dream every day? From the immigrant able to give a better life to her kids, to the entrepreneur coming up with the next unicorn company, to athletes achieving success at the highest levels, to artists having actual markets for their products, to community organizers seeing a better future for others by fighting for a broader array of civil rights, there are countless stories of the American Dream achieved.
Defining the American Dream
Let’s step back and analyze the concept of the American Dream itself. Besides a literary definition and some specific metrics, which I will get to later, I personally like to think of the American Dream as the vision statement of America. In management courses students are taught to create guiding vision and mission statements for their ventures. A vision is usually the guiding principle of an organization, what we want to be as a company or what we want the world to look like when our work is done.
What does a vision entail? It entails aiming at something and a sense of individual agency to believe you are in control of achieving (or at least pursuing) that vision. That vision requires a high sense of meaning and control of one’s life or destiny.
In that same vein, the American Dream can be thought of as the vision for the United States, the national ethos around which people coalesce and embrace their national identity. That is not to say that this means adopting a nationalistic view, but a patriotic and proud view of what makes America a great experiment.
In a speech a few years ago, Lord Rabbi Sacks defined the Declaration of Independence as the covenant of the United States. He stated that “a covenant is about neither wealth nor power, but about the bonds of belonging and of collective responsibility. And to put it as simply as I can, the social contract creates a state, but the social covenant creates a society . . . the social covenant in the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and its social contract in the Constitution in 1787.”
If the Declaration of Independence is the covenant that binds people in the United States together, the American Dream is the vision that seeks to put that covenant into action. It’s what the pursuit of happiness is all about. It’s the hope that the country strives to offer, even if that vision was not available to every member of society when the country was first founded.
For a specific definition of the American Dream, I turn to James Truslow Adams in his 1931 book, The Epic of America, which continues to be relevant today: “[The American Dream] is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man and woman, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement . . . . It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of a 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 is not a one-size-fits-all concept. What it means for people to live better, richer, and fuller lives means different things to different people. Better can mean greater life expectancy and easier access to life-saving vaccinations, like we have seen in the case of the three highly effective COVID-19 vaccines. But it can also mean being able to have access to amenities that make life simpler. Richer can also mean many different things. It could refer to a societal level of wealth that allows a nation to take better care of its citizens, or it could be individuals pursuing wealth creation so they and others can enjoy increased disposable income. But it can also mean the immigrant story of parents becoming richer than was possible in their own countries through hard work and perseverance, with the objective of enhancing their children’s chances at education and success.
But no other part of the American Dream is more unique than the pursuit of a fuller life, an idea enshrined in so many aspects of the American experience that can serve as an aspirational vision for one’s own life. That fuller life can mean the complete freedom of speech and freedom to practice any religion that one chooses, to having a good family life, or the pursuit of fulfilling careers that are enabled by more dynamic markets that create more job opportunities. Fuller lives can also mean participating in community or advocacy organizations, investing in crypto currencies, engaging in social media, playing fantasy football leagues. The list can go on and on.
Despite the ubiquitous phrase, the American Dream is more about the pursuit of flourishing than it is of happiness. Because “happiness” is more of a fleeting emotional state, flourishing is the more appropriate term. The pursuit of that American Dream is not always about achieving happiness; it doesn’t need to be represented by a state of mind that is carefree and content when one specific goal has been achieved. It’s a much more complex and holistic state of mind, and indeed a way of life, that involves all the ups and downs of human living. Which is why, for example, Martin Luther King Jr.’s pursuit wasn’t about ensuring happiness but about advancing the equality of opportunity that is a precondition for others to be able to pursue their own dreams. He was trying to enable others to pursue their dream by dedicating his life to a dream of equality. But just as MLK had a dream, it was a vision, both a vision for his own life and a vision of a better country.
Measuring the American Dream
In terms of specific measurements of the American Dream, there are two components researchers usually examine. The first is the rate of income or social mobility across generations. Upward income mobility, in absolute terms, is defined as how many people out-earn their parents at the same age, usually measured around 32–40 years of age. According to this measure, some authors have found that the American Dream is in decline, with only 5 in 10 adults out-earning their parents as adults currently; down from 9 in 10 Americans for those people who were born in the 1940s. Other researchers have found that for the generation reaching 32–40 years of age now, instead of 5 in 10 adults, the figure is more like 3 in 4 adults. For those born at the bottom of the income distribution, the figure is better, with 9 in 10 adults out-earning their parents. In these numbers, the story is more positive, but the American Dream can be thought of as just stagnant by some, even though it’s not declining as seriously as some would think.
However, as we discussed above, increasing income or getting richer is just one part of the American Dream and does not fully capture it. A second measurement can be found in surveys of people’s own perspectives and desires. In surveys that the Archbridge Institute has conducted, most people see becoming wealthy as important but not essential to the American Dream. Freedom of choice on how to live and having a good family life ranked highest in terms of being essential to the American Dream.
Furthermore, our surveys also asked whether people think they have achieved their dreams, are on their way to achieving them, or if they think the American Dream is out of their reach. Most people said they have either achieved the dream or they are on their way to achieving it (about 75% of people). Only 25% of people think the dream is out of reach. Ultimately though, the American Dream is an ethos that cannot be easily quantified, which is why it is more appropriate to think of it as a dynamic and ever-improving vision statement. Thinking about it in terms of a concrete state of affairs that lends itself to assessment through econometric or other social science techniques is to miss its true import and potential.
On an individual level, the dream can be a vision statement for people’s lives. And in that sense, it could be that the pursuit of happiness and the American Dream have always been more about the journey itself and not the destination. But reaching for the American Dream is basically walking a path or pursuing a goal that you want to be defined by, known for, or affect others with. Most entrepreneurs do this, and we are definitely all entrepreneurs of our own lives. The American Dream is about recognizing your own agency and acting on it; taking control of your own destiny, regardless of where you start.
Why Does This Matter?
How does it matter to any other issues? Is the American Dream just a feel-good national ethos or can it have relevance beyond platitudes?
For one, it presupposes the value of many things: meaning, freedom, aim, aspiration, agency, persistence. We can say that America as a society, both at the national level and the individual level, is guided by a higher meaning that leads to more human flourishing as represented by the pursuit of the American Dream. And as recent research has shown, freedom—a key component of the dream—allows for a variety of different kinds of meanings to be fulfilled. Most importantly, freedom enhances human flourishing, which is why all of these ingredients of the American Dream are mutually reinforcing.
On a broader cultural level, the difference is between having a society that is dynamic and vision-oriented, that thinks of itself as capable of solving any problem, as opposed to one where people look mostly for security above all else, leaving aside the things that made it great. It is either a nation in which we are dynamic, ever-improving, self-aware, or a nation in which we are static, decadent, and doomed to fail. It is a concept that—as the second half of James Truslow Adams’s American Dream definition tells us—is about overcoming obstacles, regardless of where one came from. This has significance on many levels: both in terms of self help and overcoming one’s own barriers, and in laying the groundwork for others to do the same. A classical example is Madam CJ Walker’s success as an entrepreneur, which enabled many other black women to follow in her footsteps, and many other American Originals who have faced what seemed like insurmountable barriers on their way to a success they achieved in spite of those challenges.
It could mean the difference in our cultural conversations between thinking it’s Time to Build something, grow, innovate, and solve big problems as opposed to being static, thinking we have built enough, and that we now need to de-grow or stop—a mindset that only brings fewer opportunities for others and hampers the pursuit of better, richer, and fuller lives for our children and grandchildren in the future. It’s the difference between being aspirational, hopeful, and understanding that we’re in control of solving huge problems like climate change or resigning ourselves to just thinking we are doomed to fail and are simply unable to fully tackle such pressing issues and challenges. That is why rekindling a positive, aspirational, and agency-centric vision for the American Dream is a key driver of innovation and human flourishing.
Throughout the history of the United States, the frontier was usually representative of that more risk-taking, optimistic, and dynamic spirit. The frontier was the promise of a better, richer, and fuller life. Ever since the geographic frontier of the United States was settled, the new frontier associated with the spirit of the American Dream has been precisely the spirit of progress, innovation, and self-improvement that has characterized the country in its pursuit of more material wealth, increased standards of living, and more meaningful lives. It’s the frontier that pushes for more innovation in a wide array of industries that American companies lead. It’s the frontier for safeguarding civil and human rights at a time when many other countries can’t even dream of the freedom to be as self-critical and ever-improving. It’s the frontier that pushes for more leadership and meaningfulness in everyday spheres of life, from trades to film, art, and sports.
Is There Hope?
The American Dream is not dead as many would want us to believe. There are many things that make me hopeful and optimistic. First and foremost, it’s precisely the vision-like nature of the American Dream that should keep us hopeful and optimistic. However, there are other more tangible and positive signs.
First of all, the United States still has a significant flow of immigration. Immigrants are the ultimate dynamic entrepreneurs, risking all to come here, who replenish the United States American Dream fuel from time to time. Once upon a time it was Western Europeans, then Central and Eastern Europeans. Other times it was Asians, and nowadays it’s mostly Hispanics. So, in and of itself, immigration will always replenish that American Dream and refuel it. However, as I alluded to before, people are more positive and upbeat about the American Dream than what the media narrative leads us to believe.
More people think that they have either achieved the American Dream or are on their way to achieving it than people who think the dream is out of reach. More people think they have had more opportunities than their parents and that their kids will have more opportunities than they do. It’s a similar dynamic to the classic “Rotten Tomatoes” phenomenon that I keep seeing for movies. Whenever I see a bad critic score, I can almost always assume there is a great audience score and vice versa. And the audience—in this case, the people of the United States—give their country and the American Dream a great score, despite the critics’ extremely negative review.
Partisan and divisive times have not been the exception but the norm throughout the history of this young nation since its founding. However, despite sensationalist and negative narratives, the country is perpetually moving forward in addressing problems, as it has since the beginning. Are we leading better, richer, and fuller lives than two hundred years ago? Than one hundred years ago? Is the American Dream still alive and well? My answer is an emphatic yes. But that doesn’t mean that there are no barriers to that dream, either national or personal. The key is to acknowledge the imperfections but still strive to fulfill that ideal for everyone before proclaiming it dead on arrival.
Throughout hard times I believe the most important rallying cry that continues to bring people together is the American Dream, still in its original definition of a land offering all of its citizens the opportunity to develop better, richer, and fuller lives. Now, more than ever, it is essential that people embrace and unite under the vision of the American Dream to bridge our current divides. It is the vision that I’m wrapping myself around and the vision that I will always strive to instill in my kids, so they too can understand what makes the American Dream one of the greatest features of this amazing nation.