The American Dream is a concept that many people hold close to their hearts ? even if we can?t define exactly what it is. But whatever it is, that dream is now facing serious challenges. It may be time for new definition. Or perhaps a return to the old one.
In truth, the definition of the American Dream has never been precise. The National Association of Realtors (NAR) has done a fine job of hijacking the term, and attaching it specifically to ownership of a suburban homestead. That may be good for their business, but to my thinking the focus is far too narrow for the rest of us.
And that?s really the problem.
In the eyes of millions of people, the American Dream has become a suburban homestead (score a big win for the NAR!) ? complete with two late-model cars, annual vacations to exotic locations, college educations for all their children, near free health care, and a comfortable retirement at the beach in Florida.
That?s not a dream ? but a wish list. There?s no adventure in any of that. It?s all about benefits and comfort ? a self-indulgent TV life devoid of any real life challenges.
In the more traditional view, the American Dream is a person from a foreign country, coming to America to build a better a life for himself and for his family. It might be a young person growing up in poverty, but pulling herself up to the middle class or higher. Or it?s a person in a low-wage job, who quits that job to start his own business.
That?s the view of the American Dream that we need to go back to. But how do we do that?
Get rid of the addiction to stuff
The addiction to stuff is a major reason why the American Dream seems so out of reach for so many people. Weakening employment, in combination with the high cost of everything, is making the vision of the comfortable, contented suburban lifestyle harder to obtain than ever.
The best strategy is to let go of that vision. You can be perfectly happy in your life if you never own a home, never buy a brand-new car, or never have the latest incantation of Xbox for your children.
The addiction to stuff has largely been caused by the advertising culture, and by the consumer arms race that seems to be in place all around us. However it comes about, it traps you in a world that is singularly focused on maintaining a high cost lifestyle.
Stop thinking of the American Dream as being a suburban homestead filled with goodies. Instead, think of it as a life of rich experiences and overcoming challenges.
You don?t need a lot of stuff to create that kind of dream.
Focus on Getting out of debt
If there is a single financial factor that is most threatening to the American Dream, it?s debt. Americans hold near record amounts of debt in nearly every category. Whether it?s mortgages, car loans, student loans, or credit cards, in the past couple of decades, Americans have been using it in order to be able to pay for what their incomes can no longer cover.
While you may have little trouble dealing with a single debt, it?s the combination of several that can turn life from a dream to a nightmare. And that?s exactly where many people are, especially young people.
Debt is bondage. If freedom still holds place in the American Dream, debt has to go. You can?t pursue a dream ? or any other worthwhile goal ? if you are weighed down by debt. Stop using it to pay for what you can?t afford, and begin gradually paying it off until it?s all gone.
That may be the single biggest step you can take to restore the American Dream to your vision for your life.
Develop transferable skills
A job is not a form of entitlement, and that?s more true today than ever. Today, all jobs are temporary. Get used to it – embrace it as your friend – it?s the reality of our time whether we like it or not.
The concept of job security never really existed in America until the post-World War II boom. In recent years, it?s become clear that we?re going back to the previous arrangement. An employer will keep you on only as long as they need you; after that, you?ll be terminated.
For that reason, skills are far more important than any job you hold, which is why it?s so important that you keep them up to date. Work on improving the skills you already have, and also on developing new ones.
Stop thinking of yourself as an employee ? who is entitled to a job ? but rather as a skilled craftsman, who is flexible, creative, mobile and emotionally adjusted to the present reality. You can do this by constantly working to improve your skill set. The more skills you have, the less dependent you are on any single employer, and the more career mobility you?ll have. That will serve you well, what ever the dream it is that you have for your life.
Starting your own business
At the beginning, I used the example of a person in a low-wage job who quits the job to open his own business. Maybe I?m exaggerating, but to me entrepreneurialism is the quintessential heart of the American Dream. It?s rugged individualism at it?s finest – the ?little guy? who strikes out on his own, and decides to take an equity stake in his own economic future. It?s building something from nothing to create a new and unique life.
This is actually woven into the tapestry of the American Dream. Historically, America has been a nation of farmers, craftsmen, and shopkeepers. Part of the reason why the American Dream looks so blurry now, is that we?ve lost sight of that history. We?ve become hyper-focused on jobs, job security, and employer- and government-paid benefits. Until the post-World War II boom, none of that ever figured in the American Dream.
No matter what else is going on in your life, no matter how few possessions you have, you can always resurrect the American Dream in your own life by starting your own business. If you don?t think you can do it, please refer to the many articles in the OutOfYourRut Self-Employment category. I did it, and you can too.
If the idea of starting your own business on a full-time basis scares you, you can also start and run a business as a part-time venture. You can run it part-time for as long as you need to, and then convert it to a full-time venture only when you feel fully ready to do so. Today, nearly anyone can have their own business. And that?s the heart of the American Dream.
The American Dream isn?t dead ? it just needs a new definition. We each have to create that definition, and make it happen in our own lives.
Do you ever fret that the American Dream is over?
Such an interesting read! Our American dream is to get out of the country, leave all of our stuff, and become completely independent by being full-time travelers.
Hi Michelle – That’s quite an ambitious dream! Not quite what I had in mind, but my hat’s off to you for having a dream. So many people seem to have lost theirs.
My dream is similar to Michelle @fitisthenewpoor. Only, I don’t want to be a full-time traveler. Maybe, just a 80% traveler; I’m too attached too my family to be travelling all the time- haha. Ultimately, my American dream is to gain financial freedom.
Hi Emily – I guess I’m just too much of a homebody to make traveling a priority. Some travel sure, but not to spend 100%, 80% or even 50% of my time. But it’s still a dream that you have that gets you out of bed in the morning, so it’s all good.
I actually know someone who travels like that. He earns his living on the web, so work/income isn’t a problem. He goes from country to country, spends a few months in each then moves on. It’s not tourist type travel, but staying, renting an apartment or house and experiencing life where ever he goes as one who lives there. It’s not the American Dream, but then he isn’t American.