The American Success Story - the story of a self-made white man, with his symbolic house surrounded with white picket fences, and a doting housewife (because the house functioned perfunctorily well with one breadwinner), an emblem of economic prosperity, and self-reliance. Over the years, The American Dream has evolved through several definitions, and it means different things to different people, but one aspect of it remains concrete - the ability to make something of yourself, through perseverance and hard work.
Coined by James Truslow Adams, it was initially described 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."
Although inspirational, this definition lacked clarity, and thus originated the next definition of the American Dream, one that explicitly focused on breaking down the notion of richness in the American Dream. Richness did not simply refer to material gain, and thus John Adams differentiated the American Dream from the dreams of prosperity, by declaring that:
“(The American Dream 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.”
America has (and is still) widely recognised as the land of opportunities, the land where you can make a name for yourself, and live the life you have grown up desiring. But, is the American Dream really a dream worth holding on to, or is it just a thinly veiled nightmare?
The Rise, The Fall, and The In-Between
Although the connotations of an American Dream now endorse amassing great wealth and being at the pinnacle of social mobility, its initial intention was rooted in democracy and equality for all, especially the immigrants. It was regarded as a symbol of hope, despite being just a pipe dream. But, somewhere along the way, its essence dissipated and got lost in translation.
Today, the American Dream is often considered as an attempt to uplift the immigrants and is a representation of their archetypal holy grail paved with gold, but it was actually a response to the pervasive growth of industrialisation, in 1931. With the rapid development of technology, came a global change that revolutionised the economy. Through streamlined manufacturing of goods, the industrial revolution improved the quality and standard of life for the common man. Before this, the comforts and luxuries of life were a distant reality for the average person, reserved only for the aristocratic rich. This was also the time when America experienced a huge inflow of immigrants, who entered the country with nothing apart from the ambition to be something, to climb up the economic ladder and live a life of dignity. Every individual desired to emulate the rags to riches version of the American Dream, but little did they know that the notion of equality does not extend to those who do not meet the required standards of American-ness.
The American Dream appeared to be the perfect antidote to the perils of a radical class consciousness. It promised a shared vision to all American workers and bosses, rich and poor alike. Dissatisfaction with one's position would motivate employees to change their positions within the system rather than attempting to change the system itself. Unionising for a better future was overpowered by the selfish pursuit of the individual self. The struggle to get ahead caused fragmentation amongst workers and prevented a collective class consciousness, and thus began the downfall of the dream.
Disillusionment of the American Dream
“John Steinbeck once said that socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”
― Ronald Wright, A Short History of Progress
Some key features that are rooted in the ideal of a true American Dream are individualism, American exceptionalism, sacrifice and self-reliance. Although, the expectations from this dream are so far fetched that reality often falls short. The rags to riches narrative attracted a lot of attention, even though the social mobility that could realistically be achieved was short-distance. At best, an impoverished person could be a part of the middle class, and the middle-class person could move up to become a small proprietor. This ideal still indulged in, and awarded individual initiative, and thus suppressed the collective class consciousness that was pertinent to revolt against this.
Literary works during this time period played a huge role in shaping the mindsets of the individuals, they not only portrayed the limitless possibilities of success and achievement, but also the catastrophic realities of a corrupted version of the dream. Some books that distinctly focus on the American Dream are: ‘The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin’, ‘Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ and ‘The Great Gatsby’. American literature is a catalyst for the liberty and retention of creative expression, as well as an outlet to warn people of the dangers of flying too close to the sun.
Where on one hand, the Franklinian principles symbolise and facilitate the endless potential of the American Dream, one where your hard work does pay off; Gatsby’s depraved version sets the scene for a world filled with excessive materialism and greed, where the dream lies beyond the green light - always out of reach. This warped version of the Dream is grounded in superficiality and financial wealth, where humanity is but a distant memory. This decay of the American Dream forces us to re-analyse whether the dream is corrupt in itself, or it is the society that has made it so.
Rags to Riches: The Unfolding of a Toxic Hustle Culture
Of course, this so-called dream is not about guaranteed outcomes, but rather about seizing opportunities.
However, the opportunity to live the American dream is far less common today than it was several decades ago. While 90 percent of children born in 1940 ended up in higher income brackets than their parents, only 40 percent of those born in 1980 did.
To no one’s surprise, being poor in a very wealthy and inherently unfair country – one that prides itself on being a meritocracy and rejects social support for those who fall behind – appears to result in particularly high levels of stress and desperation. Although capitalism endorses the belief that this dream is reasonable and achievable, it is more often than not, just a dream that leaves its pursuers high and dry.
The American Dream is a dead, artificial construct that was designed to keep Americans happy about working for money-hungry businesses in the first place. It has never been a prerogative extended to people of colour, as evidenced by both postwar consumerism and modern-day America. The reality today is not what it was a couple of decades ago, the economic gap has only widened, and with it - the racial, political and social inequality. No longer can one achieve, or even indulge in the idea of a white picket fence, because the minimum wage makes it impossible to rent a house, much less own one. We are living in the dark hours, and the toxicity that this culture emulates only adds on to the pressure that is crushing the current generations.
As income inequality has risen dramatically since the 1970s, the American Dream is becoming less and less attainable for those who aren't already rich and powerful or born into wealth. Although this Dream was a resolution to help an individual make something of themselves, despite their lineage or race or religion, it ended up becoming the wedge that drove people away from one another. Downward mobility is now the new normal for most individuals. Upward mobility is now an almost insurmountable dream. The American Dream that has existed in this country, and all over the world for over 50 years is on life support. And for some of us, it may already be dead.