Is the American Dream dead? (2023)

Editor’s note: This article kicks off our collaboration with Point Taken, a new program from WGBH that premieres Tuesday, April 5 on PBS and online at pbs.org. The show will feature fact-based debate on major issues of the day, without the shouting.

Is the American Dream dead? (1)

The American Dream that has existed in this country for over 50 years is on life support. For some Americans, it may already be dead.

While recent consumer confidence surveys indicate that Americans seem somewhat optimistic about the overall economy, most polls and studies show that we are anxious about our own economic futures.

Many Americans no longer seem to believe that they will ever be financially secure or stable. The belief that you can succeed financially with hard work and determination has been a core tenet of the American Dream. Now more than three-quarters of all Americans believe that downward mobility is more likely than upward mobility.

Are the foundational elements of our collective dream and middle-class lifestyle – owning a home, having stable employment and retiring debt-free and financially secure – now out of reach for most of us, especially the young? And has the problem of the vanishing middle class now reached a group that had seemed entrenched, suburban white Americans?

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I’ve been researching these themes recently while writing a book on the topic. In part I’m trying to understand what these disturbing trends – including stagnant wages and runaway debt – mean for the American Dream, a term first coined by writer James Truslow Adams 85 years ago:

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.

Let’s examine the three tenets above and see if they can still support the “dream of our land.”

Housing is unaffordable

Since the Great Depression, the American Dream has been linked to homeownership. Now, almost 10 years after the worst economic crisis since the ‘30s, America is well on the road to becoming a renter nation.

While the cost of buying basic staples (like food and clothing) has largely remained the same or dropped over the last 30 years, housing prices have soared, especially during the housing boom in the early 2000s. (Prices fell during the 2007-2009 recession, but they have since recovered and are rising in many regions in the country.)

As prices rise, homeownership rates are going in the opposite direction. After peaking at almost 70 percent in 2004 during the housing boom, they’ve plunged, falling to below a 50-year-low of below 64 percent in 2015.

As homeownership rates have dropped, the number of renter households has grown. In fact, renter households are now the majority in nine of the 11 largest U.S. metropolitan areas. Renting is no longer limited to recent high school or college graduates as the majority of renters in the country are 40 years or older, up from 43 percent in 1995.

While no state, county or major city in the United States has enough affordable housing for its poorest residents, it’s not just those families who are forced to rent. Even Americans employed full-time are now struggling to find affordable rental housing, in part because demand has surpassed the supply of such units, causing rental prices to rise.

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Just a decade ago, these middle-income families might have become homeowners, but now they are putting pressure on the rental market because they can’t afford to buy. That leaves fewer affordable rental homes or apartments for everyone else.

One of the primary reasons families cannot afford to buy homes or find affordable rental housing is that housing costs have risen quicker than household income.

Downward economic mobility

The fact is that for all but the highest-paid workers, wages have been stagnant for almost 30 years. In addition, American workers must now contend with an unstable and unsteady labor market.

While unemployment rates are now below 5 percent, well below the historically high rates during the Great Recession, all but the best-paid workers routinely experience multiple, sustained periods of unemployment. Likewise, workers are now more likely to be under-employed and hold jobs that require less training or education than they have. Also, workers are more likely to hold more than one job at a time and quilt a “patchwork of paychecks” together just to make ends meet.

Stagnant wages and unsteady employment have helped create income and wealth inequality gaps that are now approaching levels this country has not seen in almost a century. Because the richest Americans are receiving a disproportionate share of income and wealth in the U.S., the American Dream of upward mobility from the lower to the middle-class has all but vanished.

And some even argue that generational mobility is now more likely in some European countries than it is in the U.S.

Because wages have not kept pace with soaring housing prices in most places in this country, Americans must now make trade-offs and sacrifices.

One-fifth of all employed Americans must find ways to supplement their income just to pay bills and buy groceries. Fourteen percent are spending more on their credit cards to pay for their monthly living expenses, and 17 percent of workers have been forced to sacrifice their retirement security.

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Retirement insecurity and instability

Things look bleak for those Americans nearing retirement. As for young adults, financial security during their sunset years seems almost hopeless.

Federal Reserve data show that 31 percent of people who have not yet retired and 19 percent of 55-64-year-old adults who are nearing retirement age have no postwork savings or private pension.

Older baby boomers who either have retired or are approaching retirement often find that they have inadequate savings even though many of them worked for employers who provided traditional pensions rather than 401(k)-styled employee-funded individual savings plans.

Americans coming into retirement are also burdened with more housing, automobile and even student loan debts than people their age did a decade ago.

As a result, many baby boomers have decided to push back their retirement date.

Younger Americans are also struggling to save for retirement. Young adults lack retirement savings because many of them are part-time workers who do not have access to a plan that sets aside some of their pay or because they are too burdened with student loan and other debts to be able to save for retirement.

The death of the dream

Americans who have worked hard and played by the rules now fear that they will never be financially successful.

They have lost faith in the American Dream. They are disillusioned, and they are showing signs of despair.

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Both conservative working-class Americans who do not have a college degree and ultra-liberal college-educated millennials are displaying their anger in this presidential election cycle.

Many voters who have lost faith in the American Dream are embracing nontraditional populist candidates like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Disenchanted and disaffected voters seem willing to support extreme views and proposals because they no longer believe that traditional political candidates will find a way to create secure jobs that pay decent wages and help move the working class into the middle class.

One group in particular – whites aged 45 to 54 without a college degree – appears to have given up on the American Dream. White noncollege Americans, especially males, no longer seem to believe that hard work and determination is enough to achieve financial success.

They blame politicians, particularly President Obama, for pushing economic policies that harm the middle class. They are anxious, they are angry and they doubt that their high school diploma or work skills will be enough for them to succeed in the job market.

Disturbing physical signs of this economic anxiety includes increased first-time heroin use by whites, particularly young males, shortened average lifespans and their rising suicide rates.

While the American Dream of upward mobility and financial security is alive and well for the richest Americans, lower- and middle-income Americans have never felt less secure financially than they do now.

Downward mobility is now the new normal for most Americans. Upward mobility is now an almost insurmountable dream.

FAQs

Is American Dream still alive today? ›

There are 420 counties where the American Dream is alive and well: places that are both prosperous and conducive to upwards economic mobility. Seventy-two percent of the country's most prosperous counties fall into this category, supporting the correlation between prosperity and mobility.

What is American Dream today? ›

The American dream today is having a sense of community while achieving financial success regardless of their initial social status. Everyone should feel included and have endless opportunities. While the American dream is always evolving, this is a dream that remains consistent over time.

Why is the American Dream harder today? ›

The main reason “the American Dream” is dead for all Americans, regardless of race, is due to wealth inequality in the United States today. As the world has become more evolved, more jobs require education further than high school.

Is American Dream still possible springboard? ›

The American Dream is still accessible because all Americans have a right to have their own idea of happiness and those who strive for it can achieve it. In the Declaration of Independence, it states that all Americans are granted “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (Declaration of Independence 59).

Who stole American Dream? ›

Who Stole the American Dream? is a non-fiction book by the American author and journalist Hedrick Smith published in 2012 by Random House. Who Stole the American Dream? It describes the consolidation of wealth in the United States, and the dismantling of the middle class.

Is American Dream in trouble? ›

American Dream reported $60 million in losses last year amid the pandemic, and is challenging $9 million that several neighboring municipalities say the mall owes to them.

Is American Dream in debt? ›

In August, Triple Five missed an $8.8 million debt payment tied to American Dream, and not for the first time this year. The financial struggles are tied to the mall itself, with its performance under pressure. For 2021, American Dream lost $60 million as expenses piled up well beyond the rent revenue it took in.

Why did American dreams get Cancelled? ›

On May 16, 2005, Syndication announced their fall schedule for the 2005–06 season and after months of speculation, "American Dreams" was formally canceled, due to low ratings.

Is the American Dream changing? ›

Miguel Suro, a licensed attorney in Florida and a personal finance blogger, says the American Dream has changed in two main ways over time: it's harder to achieve, and the goals are different. “The main culprit here seems to be technology and the round-the-clock work culture it has created,” Suro says.

What stops people from achieving the American Dream? ›

When digging a little deeper, we identified the top four obstacles preventing people from attaining their American Dream.
  • 46% of Americans feel debt is holding them back. ...
  • 75% of Americans don't have enough savings for retirement. ...
  • 46% of Americans say their stress levels limit achieving success.

Is the American Dream an ideal or a reality? ›

The concept of the American dream is still one of the most uniquely "American" ideals—the ultimate idea that any individual should be able to pursue their dreams and build the life they want if they put in the hard work.

What is the greatest obstacle to realizing the American Dream? ›

The obstacles people face while trying to achieve the American Dream are gender, ethnicity, and lack of education. The American Dream has been cherished by everyone who comes to American, but not everyone achieves it due to the obstacles they face.

Is American Dream making money? ›

American Dream, the struggling megamall near the New Jersey Turnpike, lost about $60 million in 2021, according to a securities filing.

Is the American Dream freedom? ›

The American Dream is the national ethos of the United States, a set of ideals including representative democracy, rights, liberty, and equality, in which freedom is interpreted as the opportunity for individual prosperity and success, as well as upward social mobility for oneself and their children, achieved through ...

Why is the American Dream a paradox? ›

Americans strive to obtain the American dream, but they fail to realize that it is our own dissatisfaction and anger that get in our way of keeping the American dream alive. John Steinbeck's, “Paradox and Dream”, describes these paradoxes that linger in almost all Americans lives.

What caused American Dream? ›

The beginnings of the idea of the American Dream can be traced to the Founding Fathers, who declared their independence from England because of their belief in unalienable rights. Those men believed people inherently possessed the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

How does the American dream lead to crime? ›

It is argued that because American society stresses economic achievement to a much greater extent than the use of legitimate methods to reach these economic goals, there is a higher use of illegal and more efficient means, including violence, to achieve economic success.

Why do they call it the American dream? ›

The original “American Dream” was not a dream of individual wealth; it was a dream of equality, justice and democracy for the nation. The phrase was repurposed by each generation, until the Cold War, when it became an argument for a consumer capitalist version of democracy.

How much of American Dream is open? ›

Today there are about 160 stores open, including the complex's anchor, Saks Fifth Avenue, part of The Avenue luxury wing that opened Sept. 17. At that time, American Dream's first sit-down restaurant, Carpaccio, also opened.

How much debt is American Dream mall? ›

1, and there are insufficient funds in the reserve account previously used to make payments on the $287 million debt, per the notice.

Why are malls closing in America? ›

A longtime fixture of American culture, shopping malls have suffered for decades amid a rise in online shopping, a decline in visitors to department stores, and, more recently, the COVID-19 pandemic, which kept consumers home.

Who owns the most American debt? ›

The public holds over $24.29 trillion of the national debt. 1 Foreign governments hold a large portion of the public debt, while the rest is owned by U.S. banks and investors, the Federal Reserve, state and local governments, mutual funds, pensions funds, insurance companies, and holders of savings bonds.

Who Pays America's debt? ›

The Federal Reserve has been purchasing these bonds to keep interest rates low after the 2008 Financial Crisis. States and local governments hold 5 percent of the debt. Foreign governments who have purchased U.S. treasuries include China, Japan, Brazil, Ireland, the U.K. and others.

Why does America owe so much? ›

From FY 2019 to FY 2021, spending increased by about 50%, largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Tax cuts, stimulus programs, increased government spending, and decreased tax revenue caused by widespread unemployment generally account for sharp rises in the national debt.

How many seasons did American dreams have? ›

Is the TV show American Dreams on Netflix? ›

2002–2005 Series 3 Seasons61 Episodes

Sorry, this show is currently not available on any streaming platforms.

Why is the American Dream so important? ›

The American Dream is a vital part of what makes the United States of America. We all want our children to do better than us -- whatever your definition of “better” is. If we no longer think the Dream is viable, we risk losing what makes the great American Experiment so special.

Who criticized the American Dream? ›

Over 50 years ago, African-American writer and social critic James Baldwin shared his thoughts on the idea of the American dream. It was part of a historic debate between Baldwin and American conservative author William F.

Is the American Dream a goal or journey? ›

Americans understand that the American Dream can mean different things to different people, but there is a consensus that the Dream is always driven by hope for the future. It's not a given, either; 87% of Americans strongly agree that in order to live the Dream, you have to work for it.

What is the conclusion of the American Dream? ›

Conclusion. Ultimately, the American Dream maintains a core set of beliefs: the right to certain freedoms that enable every individual to pursue a life of success and happiness. What success and happiness mean to one person is not necessarily what they mean to another.

Is the American Dream even about happiness? ›

Happiness is not a result of the ideology of the American Dream, rather it is something that a person must learn to find themselves. The American Dream provides people with the hope to become successful; however, success does not equate to happiness.

Is the American Dream happiness? ›

The American Dream is an ideal that anyone in America can be happy through hard work, determination & initiative. The apparent definition of this achieved “Happiness” is going to college, having multiple good jobs, a nice big house, being rich, having a generic housewife & two kids.

What is the fallacy of the American Dream? ›

The idea that “anybody can make it in the US if they work hard enough” has been a bedrock of American life since the country's birth. However, data is showing that inequality and economic mobility are highly correlated, and inequality has been on the rise in the US for the last half century.

What are negatives of the American Dream? ›

"The negative side of the American Dream comes when people pursue success at any cost, which in turn destroys the vision and the dream." In this quote, by Azar Nafisi, it explains how dreaming can be tainted by reality, and that if a person doesn't compromise they may suffer.

What does MLK say about the American Dream? ›

“[The Dream] is found in those majestic words of the Declaration of Independence, words lifted to cosmic proportions: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by God, Creator, with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of ...

Is American Dream losing money? ›

It lost $60 million last year, and making payments on its massive construction debt left it with only $820 — yes, $820 — in a reserve account last year. But American Dream's demise is more than bad timing.

Is American Dream the biggest mall? ›

The second-largest shopping mall in America is the American Dream Mall in New Jersey. The American Dream is home to more than just your average clothing stores. This mall is so diverse that it even has the Nickelodeon Universe theme park, an indoor ski slope, and the Dreamworks Waterpark.

Is the Mall of America in financial trouble? ›

The mall recorded $305 million in sales last year, well below the $2 billion initially forecasted for the property's first year of operations. Meanwhile, the mall has $2.6 billion in liabilities versus $500 million in equity. The mall's owner has been scrambling in recent months for an extension to repay a debt.

When did the American Dream become a thing? ›

It was in that creed that the phrase the American dream was first used to articulate — not in 1931, when it was popularized, but when it first appeared in American political discourse, at the turn of the 20th century.

What is American Dream example? ›

Some examples of the American Dream include social mobility, the opportunity to start a family or business, and access to education.

How does the American Dream affect society? ›

THE GLOBAL IMPACT OF THE AMERICAN DREAM

The American Dream has been a long-time model of prosperity for both American's and people around the world. “The charm of anticipated success” has brought millions of immigrants to America, looking for equal opportunity and a better life.

What are the 5 example of paradox? ›

Here are some thought-provoking paradox examples:
  • Save money by spending it.
  • If I know one thing, it's that I know nothing.
  • This is the beginning of the end.
  • Deep down, you're really shallow.
  • I'm a compulsive liar.
  • "Men work together whether they work together or apart." - Robert Frost.

What did Benjamin Franklin say about the American Dream? ›

Franklin's classification of the American dream implied an ideal that everyone had the chance to achieve the Jeffersonian ideal of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. For Franklin, the American dream was possible for anyone who had the willingness to work hard and honestly.

What would a Marxist perspective say about the American Dream? ›

Marxist critics argue that the concept of the American dream is based in capitalist ideology because it makes people believe that competitive behavior is natural. In other words, capitalist ideology suggests that human beings are innately competitive and will therefore try to acquire a large number of commodities.

How has the American Dream changed over time? ›

If people fear that the American Dream is dead, it is because the concept has changed from the idea that everyone can improve their life through hard work to the idea that everyone can become a millionaire through virtually no work. The American Dream as first conceived, however, is still possible.

Has the American Dream changed since the start of America? ›

The American Dream of the 21st Century is radically different from its 1776 edition. From power struggles to purchasing power, this is the story of its evolution. Few things have been more central to American identity than the American Dream.

Where is America's dream? ›

American Dream is located in New Jersey, just a heartbeat away from New York City. Feel the excitement of making memories again at the newest place for indoor family entertainment. Nickelodeon Universe Theme Park is the biggest indoor theme park in the Western Hemisphere.

What city is American Dream? ›

American Dream is a retail and entertainment complex in the Meadowlands Sports Complex in East Rutherford, New Jersey, United States. The first and second of four opening stages occurred on October 25, 2019, and on December 5, 2019.

When did the American Dream end? ›

The phrase was repurposed by each generation, until the Cold War, when it became an argument for a consumer capitalist version of democracy. Our ideas about the “American Dream” froze in the 1950s.

What factors prevent the American Dream? ›

When digging a little deeper, we identified the top four obstacles preventing people from attaining their American Dream.
  • 46% of Americans feel debt is holding them back. ...
  • 75% of Americans don't have enough savings for retirement. ...
  • 46% of Americans say their stress levels limit achieving success.

What causes American Dream? ›

“Activation-synthesis hypothesis suggests dreams are caused by brainstem activation during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and stimulation of the limbic system (emotional motor system),” she says.

How has the American Dream affect society? ›

THE GLOBAL IMPACT OF THE AMERICAN DREAM

The American Dream has been a long-time model of prosperity for both American's and people around the world. “The charm of anticipated success” has brought millions of immigrants to America, looking for equal opportunity and a better life.

Is American Dream bigger than Mall of America? ›

The Mall of America is owned by the same company as American Dream and is the largest mall in the US, with 5.6 million square feet, a theme park, and over 500 stores. The massive complex opened 27 years ago, on August 11, 1992, in Bloomington, Minnesota. At least 150,000 people came to the mall on its opening day.

Who made Trump an American Dream? ›

Trump: An American Dream
No. of seasons1
No. of episodes4
Production
Executive producersDavid Glover Mark Raphael
10 more rows

Whats the largest mall in the USA? ›

American Dream

Whats the biggest mall in the world? ›

Dubai Mall is the world's largest destination for shopping, entertainment and leisure, located next to the world's tallest building, the Burj Khalifa.

How much did American Dream cost to build? ›

The 3.5-million-square-foot shopping and entertainment complex, home to an indoor ski slope, amusement park and water park, generated about $173 million in revenue, mainly from attractions and rent. Expenses totaled $232.4 million, according to a three-page unaudited financial report.

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