The Demise of the American Dream

This no longer has to be your dream...unless you want it to be.

This no longer has to be your dream...unless you want it to be.

Growing up there were certain values that were instilled in me.  Not necessarily by my family or friends, but rather by society as a whole.  Society led me to believe that there was a certain path that I should follow, and if I didn’t, well then I must be a failure.  This path included your traditional college education, getting a prominent career right after graduation, and were I to continue down the path I am on, marriage, kids and a hefty mortgage would certainly be the next steps.   While I have nothing against marriage, kids and a mortgage (and hope to have all three when the time is right), it is amazing to me that to this day if you are on a path other than this, you are viewed in a negative light by many.  Of course there are exceptions to this rule:   successful actors, sports figures and self made entrepreneurs being the most common.  Notice how I use the qualifying word, successful.

Historically, America has been the land of opportunity; a place for people’s dreams to flourish.  Millions of people have moved to the United States from all over the world, just to pursue their version of the American dream, which has changed many times over throughout the years.

In the early 20th century, it represented a chance for people of all ages and backgrounds to go out on a limb, and create a new life for themselves in any way possible.  There is inherently a lot of risk in that.  Imagine packing up your family and bags, moving halfway across the world, with no money, and then starting to forge a new life for yourself.  Talk about a daunting task.

As the decades went on, it appears as though somewhere the entrepreneurial aspect of what the American dream initially stood for was lost.  Rather than living a life of taking chances and uncertainty, the American dream became the generic path that was laid out in the beginning of this article.  One of passive comfort, with little regard to doing the things that really get you excited in life.

Well once again, after decades of risk-averse lives, things are beginning to shift.  I am happy to report that the newest iteration of the American dream has nothing to do with picket fences or spending 30 years at the same career.  Sure there will always be people who choose that path, and will be completely happy doing it, but it is great to see society finally embracing the idea of change.

These days, I don’t think there is a single path I could head down in life in which I couldn’t find a supportive community.

So you want to quit your job and travel the world? No problem, here are a thousand blogs and people to follow on Twitter who will support you every step of the way!  Perhaps you want to start your own birdhouse building conglomerate?  Google it, there is plenty of support out there.

The point is, no longer are we limited to what society wants us to be.  No longer do we need to conform to archaic ideas of what should make us happy.  Now we are able to find out for ourselves, and that is an exciting thing to be a part of.

Location180 is a fantastic example of that.  I would be willing to bet that each one of you reading this is trying to find a way to make yourself happy.  You want to do things a little bit different.  Maybe not drastically different, but there is a change you would like to make, a change that just a few years ago you would have been looked down upon for pursuing.  If you are reading this, and you aren’t looking to make a change of  any sort, tell us about it in the comments.  I would love to hear a different perspective.

Anyways the point of all of this is that these days I don’t think there is such a thing as the American dream.  Rather, American’s have dreams that are all so different from one another, that you can no longer group them into one common goal.  I think the demise of the American dream is the best thing that could happen to any of us.  Not only has the time come to live our lives in a different way, but the resources are there to help us.

So what is your American dream?  How are you achieving it and how can I (we) help?  I am living mine.  The opportunities that have begun to come my way in the last week have far surpassed my expectations.  And you know what, none of them involve me wearing a tie.  Ok I take that back, one of them did, but that isn’t up for consideration at the moment.

Thanks for being you.  Thanks for doing things different.  Thanks for the support you have shown me.

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Rasheed Hooda October 29, 2009 at 10:04 am

You go Sean!

Let me know if I can be of any help.


Tyler October 29, 2009 at 10:05 am

I’m not sure how the American Dream came to mean owning a house in the suburbs with a spouse and 2.5 children. I suspect that it simply evolved to that by manufacturing a process that brought ‘comfort’ to many and created the middle class.

Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with middle class. Simply due to statistics, you, I, and most the rest of Gen Y came from and exist in that realm of influence.

The problem, like you stated, is that the dream is gone. It’s not a dream anymore; it’s an expectation. Generations of people worked hard to get there, so parents are inclined to foster their children to follow what’s become the safe path to comfort instead of happiness.

The American Dream never was about anything in particular besides the freedom of choice – the chance to do whatever the hell you wanted to in order to bring prosperity to yourself and your family.

We got off that track and turned the Dream into a unified goal that it never should have been. We’re turning that back around now.

Good or bad, I don’t know? It’s an organic process comprised of people. What will be the next American Dream needing to be deconstructed?

NomadicNeil October 29, 2009 at 10:40 am

It’s Called the American Dream Because You Have to Be Asleep To Believe It” – George Carlin

James NomadRip October 29, 2009 at 10:44 am

My dreams have changed a few times, as I suspect most peoples’ dreams do. I used to want (and had) the house in the suburbs and all that. I have found that it wasn’t really what I expected.

Most of us do shape our dreams on what is expected. Call it the Status Quo, going with the flow, or damned if I know. People often say they are doing what they want to do, when in fact they are miserably unhappy with working so hard to pay to keep that big house looking nice enough so the neighbors approve.

I spent too much of my life in a 300-mile circle. Once I figured out how much I was missing out on, I started to change that.

Frank Gual October 29, 2009 at 12:10 pm

You are so right. Since my immigrant parents never owned property. I had my mind set on having that. I was single and bought a three bedroom house in an older suburb, thinking at least I’d have a roommate sometime. I did, three times, none lasted over a few months. For fifteen years I spent money on that house, thinking I was impressing someone, or it was the right thing to do. It was a comfortable place to live, that was all. The entire time I missed out on many other things I wanted. Five years ago, Came down with another dream. Buy a condo in Florida and live happily ever after. Now I owe more than it’s worth and can’t sell. Talk about dreams deferred.

Carmen October 29, 2009 at 12:11 pm

Hey Sean,
I think you copied the first chapter of our up-coming book. I’m only kidding because it will start being printed in a week or two – but seriously, your blog topic is almost word for word what we’ve written about. I think a lot of people are starting to wake up to the fact that the traditional American dream is becoming a thing of the past. People are realizing that spending your life working 9-5 so that you can own more “stuff” and continue to accumulate until you die is not what life is all about. I think it’s good news that America is maturing to a new level of consciousness about what is important.

Piko October 29, 2009 at 1:25 pm

Thank you for your post. I have never believe in the whole American dream, but I have been influenced by it for my dream. As I grow older, I am realizing my dream has a totally look and feel to it. I hope more people can wake up from the dream and start living the life.

Colin Wright October 29, 2009 at 1:36 pm

I myself have had a variety of different dreams, though I don’t think any of them have involved owning a house (no that’s not true; for a while a planned on owning houses that other people would live in).

Great premise for this post, because it really is true that the dream is changing for more and more people. Seems like you can’t even talk to previous generations without running into folks selling their houses to travel the world on a boat or down-sizing to a apartment so they can spend more time in fancy restaurants and out with friends.

I personally think this is a positive shift. The stuff-oriented dreams of the past seem to be moving more toward a experience-focused culture. Whether this will be good or bad after the brands fully catch up and realize what’s going on, however, has yet to be seen.

Mary Thompson October 29, 2009 at 4:01 pm

Ah, yes. The American Dream. For a lot of people it is still get a job, get merried, buy a house, retire, die. And that’s cool. It’s not a BAD thing to want that. Some of us don’t want that particular life and that is okay too. I think it’s important not to place value on either choice as being negative. It’s not wrong to want those things nor is it wrong to want to live by your own rules and desires. We are all different and should have different dreams. Not everyone will want the kind of life you are living just as you wouldn’t want the one they have.

It’s awesome to see you living your version of the American dream. Pretty exciting when opportunities start opening up that you didn’t even know existed before they came about. Personally, I’m living mine. I’ve taken chances, moved to another state, will move abroad, and know that even though I don’t have concrete plans whatever I end up doing will be interesting. I’m doing things differently from all of my friends, which is why the online world where I can connect with people like you is so amazing.

Ross Welte October 29, 2009 at 4:20 pm

This is a very good post. As we are finding out in America, the dream isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and definitely not affordable anymore for a lot of people.
I think that the dream needs to be about passion, ya know? Figure out what your purpose in life is and pursue it with passion! If you can live out your purpose and make a real impact on the world that doesn’t begin at 9am and end at 5pm and just feels natural…how awesome would that be? You are going through some of that right now it seems. How big of a shift would it be if people truly pursued their own dreams again rather than the cookie cutter “American Dream?” I think we should retire that phrase all together…Thanks for the post!


Jen October 30, 2009 at 1:28 am

Interesting post Sean. I think there is a real change in the air all over the world, people are getting more in touch with what matters to them, rather than what we have been told should matter. 🙂 Exciting times.
Have you seen (or read) ‘into the wild’ the true story of Christopher McCandless. He was an American college student who became a wanderer and adopted the name Alexander Supertramp. Worth a watch if you haven’t yet. He really followed what he wanted to do, even though everyone thought he was crazy.

John Bardos - JetSetCitizen October 30, 2009 at 1:52 am

There was a great article in Vanity Fair a while ago, Rethinking the American Dream.

One notable quote, was that the American dream was,

“freedom from want, not freedom to want.”

I think it is safe to say that consumerism has all but destroyed the original incarnations of those ideas.

Another great read is The European Dream by Jeremy Rifkin. Rifkin offers the EU as a better example of a “Dream” to be focusing on. Where family, environment, health care, basic standards of social services and education take precedence.

Sean October 30, 2009 at 9:07 am

I really enjoyed reading the comments for this post. The American dream means something different for everyone, and we have a ton of different backgrounds represented here.

Take Frank for instance, he has lived what many would consider a very traditional version of the American dream. Did it make him happy and give him the fulfillment he wanted in life? It doesn’t sound like it (thanks Frank, really appreciate the honest comment).

Then you have people like Colin, who have done EVERYTHING different. He doesn’t have a boss, a mortgage or kids, and he left his old life behind to pursue an adventure. Now that is closer to the new version of the American dream (or I guess it would be the Argentinian dream if you follow his story).

We also have people like Piko who don’t believe in the idea of the AD in the first place. It is great to see such a wide variety of opinions and thoughts shared here. I started writing this post, not exactly sure where it was going to end up. I just had the basic idea that things are changing, and I think that is for the benefit of everyone.

Sorry about “stealing” the chapter from your book Carmen! If it makes you feel any better, I will still read it! 🙂

Jill MacGregor October 30, 2009 at 10:17 am

Enjoy this, Sean!
I am fascinated by the changes the American Dream has been going through. I think of how my circle of friends has revamped their own versions of this Dream and here are the commonalities I notice:
*Less is more and this doesn’t have to involve feelings of being deprived. In fact, there’s a feeling of freedom.
*Their jobs have to give them an huge emotional reward and they are noticing it doesn’t.
Take Care,

Nate October 30, 2009 at 10:45 am

Great post, Sean. What I think about most in regards to the American Dream is materialism. I was just in Boston to catch a Celtics basketball game and when I got on the subway I noticed that someone had written something interesting on the concrete wall. It said “whoever has the most stuff wins.” It’s such a simple sentence but it has a deeper message. As Colin said in his comment, I do think though that experiences will outweight material goods for our generation. I guess time will tell.

Martin October 30, 2009 at 11:01 am

Good read. Thanks Sean.

Moneymonk October 30, 2009 at 2:00 pm

I am living the Dream, each and everyday. I’m have the money I want along with the lifestyle. To each its own!

Karen October 30, 2009 at 8:49 pm

Yay, Sean!! You rock.

Oscar - freestyle mind October 31, 2009 at 3:28 am

Great article. I left college at 18 and I knew I was taking a different path than almost everyone else, but now (4 years later) I’m glad I did it because I learned so many things and I’ve been self employed for the last 3 years. Stumbled!

Markus Mindaugas November 1, 2009 at 6:24 pm

Great conversation you started, Sean. Good article by jetsetcitizen and great thought additions by your readers (you’ve built a great community of people).

My mom brought my sister and I to America when I was 10 years old, and even though at the time we wouldn’t necessarily have put it in terms of the “American dream”, that’s what we’ve been chasing and living.

The beauty of the real (unadulterated) American Dream is that it exists in a country whose values were written hundreds of years ago and supported by our collective striving for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The definition of this “happiness” is purposefully vague and allows us all the freedom to define it any way we wish – within a society that gives us the freedom to do so.

As an American I get to choose my dream and pursue it. I’m glad to be living in a time when so many others are realizing similar truths – that rampant materialism, property ownership, or accumulation is no substitute for experience, connection, and friendship with those around us – our family, friends, and even our future friends.

Dave November 2, 2009 at 7:30 am

I think the desire to be accepted has been a major reason for Americans not following their dreams. A cookie cutter mold was created after WW2 and since, much of America has thought that they must fit that mold or be shunned by society. I love being shunned by society. I think it is great to not follow the beaten path. I think careers are the specific downfall of the American Dream. The loyalty, safety and security (which no longer exists)in the American business market has led to SETTLING. Settling is a word I hate and an action much of our society has taken. If we can develop a non-settling attitude, this will lead to a renewal of the entrepreneurial spirit.

Great article Sean…

David Damron

Dragos Roua November 2, 2009 at 10:43 pm

America in itself is a successful society (at least this is how it is perceived, and as a system I can tell you it works better than many other countries). Maybe this better functionality of the whole system has made so many people dreaming about living there.

But society is just your playground, nothing more. You own the dreams.

I lived half of my life in a communist regime which didn’t had many options. Still, I managed to keep my dreams and follow them. I tried many different approaches and what I found fulfilling was not the degree of success in each of them, nor the degree of failure, for what matters. But the journey itself. That was, and still is, my reward.

Thanks for a great post.

Maya November 6, 2009 at 8:31 am

One thing to keep in mind is that even if you’ve already bought into the old American Dream, you can exchange it for a new one!

My husband and I sold everything and left our suburban Portland lifestyle behind in 2005 in order to have an adventure abroad. The tricky part: we had four teenage daughters at the time and were up to our necks in the typical suburban crap that makes it seem impossible to extricate yourself!

We had to make our businesses virtual and figure out how to usher our girls through high school and into college (I wrote a book about what we learned–The New Global Student). Oh, and create a completely new life for ourselves in a new culture and new language in a place where we knew no one.

Biggest obstacle for mid-lifers making a change: the naysayers who suggest you are:
1) about to ruin your career
2) about to sabotage your kids’ education
3) about to head down a road to financial ruin

We did it anyway. We spent our first year in Mexico and for the last three have been living in Buenos Aires, Argentina–and loving it. Despite the predictions of our peers, our girls got a GREAT education (all graduated from college by 19 and are launched into the world) and we ended up SAVING enough money each month–while living a much nicer lifestyle abroad–to pay for four nearly-simultaneous college tuitions out of pocket. We couldn’t have done that in Portland!

I think it’s up to parents to let their kids know that there are all kinds of dreams out there to pursue. Our daughters–now 18, 20, 22 and 23–are thriving by making their own choices, picking their own destinations (all over the world) and figuring out what lights them up.

We can do this at any age–and we can teach our kids to do the same. 😉

Best of luck to you and everyone who aspires to lead the life they are dreaming about….

Toni January 5, 2010 at 6:36 am

Wow, that’s what I’m talking about-I came upon this site while doing research for the book that I have been dreaming about writing-forever! It started with comparisons and moderern day interpretations of Cinderella and Snow White and “Happily Ever After” and “The American Dream”. I suppose that I have followed some of the expected roads that society, our parents, the media, in other words, the external influences that assault our conscienceness 24-7-365 days, by graduating from high school,(had a daughter during my senior year (skipped college), getting a job (actually several), I’m 49 years-old, and getting married (divorced twice), I never owned a home,(always loved the freedom that came from being able to pack up and move whenever the spirit hit me), left my small hometown in my early twenties, (none of my six siblings ever did), and still live here. But, lately, well not exctly lately, I was laid off from my job in a bank a year ago, and told myself that this was it, this was the time for me to do what I really wanted to do, I also really love interior decorating, so I’ve decided to write a book that will use elements of design,(color, texture, mood, even furniture) as a metaphor for finding the meaning of happiness. Don’t ask me how exactly it’s going to all come together, but, I haven’t been this excited about anything in my entire life-and that’s the whole point…isn’t it?

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