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The American Dream: A Generational Perspective

On Tuesday night during President Barack Obama’s 2012 State of the Union Address the ‘American Dream’ was once again put front and center on the world’s stage.  Though Obama referenced it as “the basic American promise,” his true meaning was clear by this description of his grandparent’s post WWII belief that, “if you worked hard, you could do well enough to raise a family, own a home, send your kids to college, and put a little away for retirement.”  Obama brought up the subject of the American Dream to reflect on the current state that it is in, and according to the President, it is in peril due to current economic trends and the state of the US economy.

While the faltering economic condition of the United States has been at the center of many hearts and minds for the past four or so years, my own thoughts became preoccupied with Obama’s description of the America Dream. The President’s description made me stop and consider how the concept of the American Dream must have evolved over the years.  The American Dream that Obama described was certainly compelling to the Baby Boomer Generation and even to many from Gen X, but I have to wonder if this description is as compelling to Gen Y and younger generations?

In doing research on the current state of the American Dream I came across the man who originally coined the term in 1931, John Truslow Adams. In his book The Epic of America, Mr. Adams described his 1931 American Dream to be:

“…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.” 

While the idea of the American Dream surely existed long before Mr. Adams penned the above phrase, I think that his statement has a compelling modernity about it.  For me, a member of Generation Y, Mr. Adam’s version of the American Dream is a much more compelling vision than the “American Promise” described last Tuesday night.

Besides my own opinion, there are other reasons that I have my doubts regarding the future applicability of Obama’s version of the American Dream. Those other reasons come out of the work that our company, Culture Coach International, does around the four different generations in America today. Specifically, we work with companies on the topic of generations in the workplace.  One of the reasons that so many companies come to us with requests for consulting and training around the issue of generations is because of the fact that each generation has such distinct “generational personalities” that workers from different generations often times come into conflict with one another and this affects productivity, teamwork and employee engagement.  These conflicts arise from the different values, communication styles and work styles that workers from different generations possess.

Given this logic and my understanding of the basic profiles of the different generations, it stands to reason that the post WWII American Dream as described by Obama in his State of the Union Address, might not be as compelling to the Millennial and post Millennial generations as it is to Gen X and the Baby Boomers.

After all, Gen Y is challenging many ideas in the American workplace that are considered to be sacrosanct by the Baby Boomers, such as long meetings and hierarchy.  Not to mention the dramatic social changes ushered in by Gen Y such as Facebook and smart phones.  Our groups of friends now span the globe and we rarely speak to anyone on the phone – two social changes that have dramatically affected the way Americans live their lives. So would it be any more surprising if Gen Y started to challenge what are considered to be the essential elements of the American Dream?

Interestingly enough a 2011 survey by Xavier University’s Center for the Study of the American Dream found that the top five most important elements of the American Dream are as follows: “a good life for my family”, “financial security”, “freedom”, “opportunity”, and “the pursuit of happiness”.  On the surface these five elements do not seem to challenge the version of the American Dream as Obama depicted it in his State of the Union address.  Though I could not locate a breakdown of this survey data by generation or age groups, it would be interesting to see if there are differences in the rankings according to age group.  Would Gen Y and Baby Boomers have a significantly different order for their top five most important elements of the American Dream?

While we can survey and analyze the current state of the American Dream as well as look back and chart what has become of it over the years, we can only wait and see how current and future generations will come to define it.  Will it continue to look like the American Promise that Obama described last Tuesday?  Or will Gen Y and the Post Millennial Generation take the American Dream in a different direction?  Only time will tell but given the way that Gen Y is already dramatically reshaping the reality of American life I would guess that in another five years we will hear a markedly different version of the American Dream being described during the 2017 State of the Union.

3 comments

  1. I teach a course in Music and the American Dream in a Liberal Arts university. It is interesting to study the dream through music since music is a form or rhetoric and it comes from We the People. The description changes through the times but the questions we explore most are, why do Americans have this American Dream? Is the dream a reality today? and are the premises of the American Dream, global aspirations of most of mankind?
    My own interpretation about the American Dream is that it keeps us in constant expectation of the future and that we need get beyond the dream because the future is made in the present. Having expectations always lead to suffering, instead we could cultivate awareness of what we have in the present and live mindfully to work with reality. In the end we need to wake up because it’s only a dream, a definition with no end in sight.

  2. admin says:

    Thank you for your comment Patricia. I love the questions that you pose in your comment. I agree with you wholeheartedly that in large part the American Dream is an evolving concept, or as you say, “a definition with no end in sight.”

    Keep coming back!

  3. Thanks for the feedback. Today the students read the chapter on God from Andrew Delbanco’s book The Real American Dream: A mediation on Hope. It is interesting to see that the Puritans road to salvation was to be able to distinguish between true grace and false grace. True grace culminated in the recognition that without connectedness to others, the self was lost.
    In Delbanco’s words: “the radical helplessness disclosed in self-love can be transcended by loving God, and that love of God is manifest in love of other persons”.
    As we discussed issues of Freedom in class, most students thought of the right to “do what you want”….a very selfish way of living…..no mention of responsibility or how your desires might affect others.

    In the end I see a generation eager to find new ways of looking at GOD which to me is Mystery. When we enter the mysterious we are participating in developing awareness of “the other” an if we truly engage in participation with the “other’ whether it be a person, a subject, learning a musical instrument or a sport, we are in a way transformed or sculpted by that experience. In the end the road to salvation is always through the dark terrain of self-knowledge.

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