Study implies the American dream has been reduced to a series of financial goals

Debt free and financially secure at retirement. That’s how people now define the American dream, according to a new study by Credit.com.

Here are all the results:

Define the American Dream

Retiring financially secure:  27.9%

Being debt-free:  23%

Owning a home: 18.2%

Graduating from college (paying off student loans):  6.0%

Joining the 1%:  3%

Other; 11.4%

None: .2%

Don’t know/no response: 8.5%

Only one problem with the survey: Credit.com gave these options to the participants, as opposed to asking the open-ended question, What is the American dream? Everything that Credit.com asked about has to do with money: Nothing aspirational or non-material. Just a bunch of financial objectives, each of which may require credit or other financial services.

The natural question is whether Credit.com’s selection of options reflects its natural concern for money matters or does it reflect the social ideals of the 21st century. In other words, is it more subtle propaganda from the financial industry or a true representation of how we now define the American dream?

The concept of the American dream sounds as if it has been around since Europeans rediscovered North America at the end of the 15th century. The actual term, however, can only be traced back to James Truslow Adams (1878-1949), born rich. Adams first used the term in his The Epic of America, written at the height of the depression in 1931. To Adams, the American dream is “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.” (Thanks, Wikipedia!)

That pretty much sounds like the dream imagined by Martin Luther King 50 years ago, a dream that’s defined in public terms as a more perfect society. This American dream is defined by opportunity, fairness, democracy and the pursuit of happiness. King tinges the dream with social justice as well, the idea that we must not only create opportunity for everyone, but also make certain that everyone has a minimum living standard deserving of all human beings.

Once James created the concept, it didn’t take American industry, led by the advertising industry, to privatize and commercial the American dream: Privatization involved making the dream a matter of an individual attaining success as opposed to society becoming just and equitable. Commercialization derived from the fact that industry defined this success solely in terms of material possessions. No wonder the media, entertainment and advertising industries have all been called the “great American dream machine.”

A perusal of the contents of the first few pages of a Google search of “the American dream” reveals that most people writing on the subject combine the public and the private versions of the American Dream.  Virtually every definition spoke of the American dream being the opportunity to work hard and achieve success.

For the most part since the Baby Boomer’s parents came home from World War II, the private part of the American dream has comprised owning a home and living a car-and-mall-centered life in the suburbs. We know the suburban dream has failed. We have created a society with a bottomless thirst for fossil fuels and a natural predilection to waste. It’s a social order that cannot be sustained over time, because of the twin demons of global warming and resource shortages.

I would assert that the suburban lifestyle isolates people and individuals, leading to a greater sense of privilege and self-satisfaction among the happy and successful, a greater sense of isolation and hopelessness among the unhappy or struggling. The privatization of the American dream has inured us to the suffering of others, so that many of us are only too willing to deny food stamps to the hungry and starve schools of funds because we send our kids to private schools or don’t have any.  By only including individual dreams and making them all the attainment of financial goals, Credit.com feeds into this isolating selfishness.

The Credit.com study ends with a few questions about who will achieve the American dream. About 78% think that they will attain their dream—be it financial security at retirement or owning their own home—but only 41% think that others will attain the American dream. I infer from these twin answers that Americans do not believe that their own success or aspirations are tied to those of others or to society as a whole.  It’s every person for him- or herself as we each pursue our individual success in isolation from everyone else.  This approach will surely work for the wealthy captain of industry, but for the 99% without wealth it is a less sure path than working together and helping each other. Remember that in Martin Luther King’s dream, we all walk together, black and white, rich and poor.

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