Is the American Dream Dead now that Housing is in the Tank?

The American Dream ? what it is, and what it isn?t

There?s a growing perception that the famed ?American Dream? is dead. You see it written about, discussed in the media, and books on the subject are even coming out. The housing industry has collapsed, sucking out economic activity, jobs, home equity and even mobility.

Housing is, after all, very essense of the American Dream–or is it?

Writer and historian James Truslow Adams, the man who coined the term “American Dream” in his book The Epic of America, written in the depths of the Great Depression in 1931, had a rather different concept. He defined it as?

“?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 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.”

Where is housing in all of that?

Notice that no where in that definition does a house in the suburbs with a white picket fence come up. So where did we get the notion that it ever did? Congratulations to the real estate industry on a magnificently successful highjack of the famous theme! Ahh, the power of marketing?you really have to hand it to them.

Except for one thing: their one-dimensional definition is completely wrong!

Other than an incidental (and negative) mention of ?motor cars?, Adams description doesn?t even include the STUFF we seem to hold so near and dear, let alone a house in the suburbs. His focus instead centers on the environment that spawned the dream–opportunity, a social order in which people are able to become the best they can be and where they can be recognized for their accomplishments

Do you see any stuff in that?

Since the real estate industry seized the concept of the American Dream wholesale, I?d like to forward my own notions of what it means. I believe we can live the American Dream?in America?and in many other places in the world, even if we never own our own piece of ground.

Opportunity. More than any other single factor, this is at the heart of Adam?s description. Even if we aren?t where we want to be in life, if we don?t have the trappings of success we might think we deserve, we have a chance to get there. The reasonable hope for a better life by itself is a form of currency ?a driver in our economy?in the economy of any nation.

Ability to earn more money. What about the ability to earn more money by getting a better job, improving our skills, starting a business or through any number of channels? Obviously this is more easily accomplished in a more robust economy than we now have, but it?s something we can pursue and attain even if we never have a house in the suburbs.

Having your own business. This is my personal favorite. I?ve always believed that the ability/potential/promise to be your own boss is the most fundamental component of the American Dream. It represents a chance at complete self-determination, something which I believe is an innate human desire.

At some level a house might make us feel better about ourselves, but having a business of our own is a real chance to be the person we?d like to become. And we don?t need to make a lot of money in order to do that. A sense of control over our destiny can often reduce or even completely eliminate the need to make a lot of money.

Freedom to pursue your own definition of success. One of the most attractive aspects of the American Dream is the potential to decide for ourselves what our idea of success is and to pursue it at our own pace and in our own time. It?s what?s drawn immigrants to this country and continues to do so even now. America has traditionally been a place where a person could come and seek success in a world unencumbered by a strict caste system.

Perhaps we?ve lost some of this concept because we?ve become more fascinated with the nanny state and its implied potential to soften the rough edges of life. Perhaps it?s because we?ve come to a point where we?re confusing stuff?the trappings of success?with success itself. But what ever our distortions, that freedom to pursue success is far more important than what ever it is that has us sidetracked.

Ability to innovate. Who doesn?t dream, at least occasionally, of the ability to ?build a better mousetrap?? Let?s face if, doing so could enable you to lock into several components of the American Dream at once. Innovation is our own personal way of leaving our mark on the world. Even if we don?t ever make a fortune, we can still do things that will make a difference to others.
So there you have it; no house in the suburbs, no trading up to a bigger one every five years. But still plenty to go on, still more than enough room to give us fulfilling lives, even the lives of our dreams. Are we going to let a housing slump hold us back? Is it possible that once we lessen our dependence on credit and the stuff that it buys, that we?ll actually have more freedom to pursue the American Dream?

What do you think? Is the American Dream still alive and well, or is it on life support? How would you define it?

( Photo by Show us your togwotee )

13 Responses to Is the American Dream Dead now that Housing is in the Tank?

  1. I hope you’re right Lakita. There’s been so much emphasis on the housing industry over the past few decades that you have to hope we can see past it. The American Dream and the economy at large are so much bigger than housing.

  2. The American Dream is about Freedom. Freedom to pursue whatever dreams and goals you desire, without the tyranny of government or the inequity of social classes. As it is stated in the Declaration of “Independence, Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness”.

    For some people, a house can represent a high-maintenance, debt trap that limits freedom and mobility. There are many sound reasons to not buy a house and I respect and understand them.

    But for me, my house represents freedom in the purest sense. Freedom from the oversight of a landlord and the oppression of rent increases. Freedom to remodel a bathroom, put up a shed and park in my driveway. Freedom to plant a garden, have a dog and raise a couple of chickens.

    In about six years, my mortgage will be completely paid off. Then, I will be able to enjoy my house, while free of debt. That’s my American Dream.

  3. Bret – Good points. The point of the post was to call into question the intimate connection that now exists between the American Dream and housing–at least the connection the real estate industry has largely created. I don’t think the Dream is gone just because housing is impaired, but I do think that when we focus the idea that the American dream is about a thing, we’re doomed to be disappointed, at least eventually. I personally think it’s much more–including freedom.

  4. Kevin, owning a home does restrict your movements and with the recession – one needs to be able to move to where they have a job.

    On the flip side, rental property usually involves a lease (lol).

    But I am hearing of more people staying in “extended stays” that you can rent for a day or weekly. Doing the weekly deal saves money of course.

    My Blog: “A Story of Hope”

  5. Angela – The American Dream should at least include freedom of movement to pursue opportunity. That in itself is part of the dream, I think more so than a house.

  6. I bought my house the same month I was laid off. My wife and I chose to close after evaluating whether we could make the payment with only one income. The house is just part of our plan to improve our self reliance. Which includes a growing group of other homeowners who want to raise our own foods/meats. I agree on the “American Dream” being different for each person/family, the point is that YOU make choices, after looking at the options.

  7. Vitaeus – That is the key, that we have options. I think there’s been an attempt to turn the American Dream into a specific thing, and that’s where we can get distorted into thinking that its fortunes run parallel to that thing, in this case, real estate.

  8. What an inspiring post, Kevin. Well done, my man.

    I agree with you that owning a home isn’t the epitome of the American Dream. But one of its key tenets, to me anyway, is that we are able to pass on a stronger and better nation for our children than we had given to us by our parents. Sadly, I am not afraid to say that my confidence in that regard is now very badly shaken.

    I hope we can undo all the damage that has been done over the past several years with the massive out of control government spending and new entitlement programs thrust upon us. (Heck, let’s face it, even the old entitlement programs are killing us.)

    I guess to sum up my feelings, all five of your examples are still very valid, but the increased intrusion of our government is so bad now that it is making each of them harder and harder to come by.

    All the best,

    Len Penzo dot Com

  9. Len – Thanks for the thoughtful comments. I agree that the reliance on the state to take care of all of our needs compromises the dream. The dream lives to the degree that we’re able to let go of that notion. I hope we can, but I’m not entirely certain we ever will.

  10. I would love to start my own business but at age 52, I have no idea what would be a good option. It seems that younger generation have that niche tied up with all those “online” hook ups I am seeing 🙂

  11. Angela – The key might be to think about what it is you really like to do, what you’re good at, and whether it has commercial value. Most of us look for “a business”, one that seems to work for others, but that doesn’t mean it will work for us. Good luck!

  12. Housing is surely the one and central aspect of the American Dream around which every other aspect and dream revolves. Homeless zombee Americans aimlessly living on the streets cannot possibly live any dream let alone the American Dream. So yes, Housing is dead and the American Dream is dead too!
    Here is a better way of looking at the American Dream:
    The American Dream is just a beautiful silk curtain behind which all the banking fraud is taking place. Universities, media, corporations, religious organizations, government and judicial systems all maintain, aid, promote and support the fraud and ponzi system. Everybody is a criminal that promotes fraud hiding behind this curtain called the American Dream. Who are these criminals? Its YOU. Regular educated people wearing a white shirt and a black tie or a black skirt(if its a lady).

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