Addison: It’s 40 Acres and a mule. Or, nowadays, a car, garage, 2.5 kids, equal opportunity. Oh. And a House.
Hollis: It’s beating the system; making impossible, possible.
Stella: Like in the Great Gatsby. It’s working hard for something you want. It’s that green light at the end of the dock
Emmett and Keven: Welcome to Money Today. I’m Keven Hernandez and I’m Emmett Rees and you’re listening to a creative commons podcast. Some rights reserved. And today we will examine the American Dream.
Emmett: The American Dream isn’t new–it affects us all. And it’s recurring. Facets of it come up often in American discourse, especially in terms of social mobility, the wealth gap, and unequal opportunity. While many may not hold it close to themselves, everyone has some awareness of it. But where did it start? And how has it changed?
Keven: Coined in 1933 by American author and historian James Truslow, “The American Dream” is a state of mind that has remained at the forefront of the American Consciousness. And as he well defined (Truslow 1993a), it is, “A vision of a better, deeper, and richer life for every individual regardless of the position in society which he or she may occupy by the accident of birth.” Truslow further notes that the dream is to have a future “unhampered by unjust restrictions of caste or custom.”
Emmett: Since its creation, the American dream has morphed to fit the context of its era. World War II, for example. Some argue that the American Dream expanded in the postwar years, becoming more complex to meet the changing desires of the people, (Samuel 2012:42) One was a shift towards material focus, with a 1963 reporter claiming that “the American Dream used to be a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage, then it was a swimming pool in the backyard, but now, apparently, it’s a golf course viewed through the picture window” (Unknown 1963). The second shift came, in theory, to include more people. American Novelist James Baldwin noted the importance of racial equality, professing that until those at the top started listening to and helping those at the bottom, our society would be “in terrible trouble” (Baldwin 1965).
Keven: The counterculture movement also saw shifts in the definition of the American Dream, and instead of “dreaming rich,” we’d begun to “dream hip” (Morton 1967). People began to pursue past monetary gain, and towards status and persona (Morton 1967).
Emmett: During the vietnam war, people sought to consider public problems because they “eclipsed” their personal objectives (Raspberry 1971). A 1971 Gallup Report indicated that a desire for personal upward mobility was overshadowed by “concerns about the health of the nation” (Raspberry 1971) involving, among other things, crime, addiction, and the ongoing war.
Keven: The next important transition was sparked by the internet. This world of possibility at one’s fingertips created new access to the American Dream. Everyone was on the lookout for the next Bill Gates and the next Steve Jobs, the modern embodiment of success.
Emmett: But what about now? There are many disagreements. On whether our material focus leaves us “spiritually hungry” or if we are choosing the “pursuit of happiness.” On whether the concept is even still viable today. Phillip Moffat, the editor of Esquire Magazine, called for “re-articulation of the American Dream, a redefinition of the nation’s priorities in the context of today’s possibilities.” He asks generation Z “what will be the dreams for [yourselves] and for [your] country?” (Moffat 1984). We interviewed members of Generation Z, specifically college students, to find out.
Christa Cochran: What is the American Dream today?
Nick Campion: Success. Money. Freedom.
Annika Little: the idea that if you work hard enough, and study hard enough, and put in the effort, you’ll be able to get what you want and be happy.
Hannah Beshey: It’s not always materialistic.
Shiva Bucklin: Overall being happy at the end of your life, whether that’s making money, have a good family, live in the place you want to live.
Lukas Mendel: I’ve always been a firm believer in that the American dream is very fixed. It’s very fixed for certain people. It’s fixed for people of certain race, of a certain gender, of a certain way. You look of a certain sexuality, it’s, if you aren’t the way America wants you to look, if you aren’t the way America wants you to act, it’s set against you. The American dream isn’t real. It’s an ideal.
Keven: Many agreed that the American Dream was some facet of success, but how attainable is that success, and what success meant for them, varied, especially when considering their upbringing. I’m here with Lukas Mendel, whose current views on what’s attainable are very different from how he grew up.
Lukas: I was raised in a Catholic kind, very conservative household. So I was taught that there was the American dream. I saw how they believed that if you just work really hard, you’ll get whatever you want and I just never saw that come to fruition and I always saw how they viewed others. And ‘oh well, they’re lazy, that’s why they don’t get that.’ And I was like, it’s not that they’re lazy, its today they have societal barriers that place them in their spot.
Christa: So how possible and accessible is the American dream then?
Lukas: I think it’s accessible. If you just have those right connections, if the time is right. It’s luck. I think everyone wants the American dream for themselves, but they don’t want it for anybody else and when they see someone else having the American dream, the American dream for somebody else, they get, they get unhappy that they’re not experiencing it and that someone else might be taking their opportunity away, because inherently I think everyone is very selfish.
Keven: He noted how his education at Grinnell College has widened his perspective and developed the views he shares today.
Lukas: That’s one thing I really liked about being a student here, is that I’ve had an opportunity to talk to so many other students from so many other locations around the United States and around the planet, the planet, um, which has given me an opportunity to see how other people like lived and experienced like some of these transgressions and stuff like that.
Keven: There were many others that placed a heavy importance on education. Rightfully so! As stated in an essay by the Hamilton Project, “a college degree can be a ticket out of poverty” (Greenstone et al. 2013: 14). Without a degree, a child born into the lowest quintile has a 5% chance of moving into the highest quintile compared to a 19% chance with a degree (Greenstone et al. 2013: 14). Those with a degree starting in the lowest quintile only have a 16% chance of remaining in that quintile; whereas 45% of people without a degree will remain in that quintile (Greenstone et al. 2013: 14).
Emmett: These statistics demonstrate that a college education drastically increases social mobility, even giving some the opportunity to surpass those born in higher income groups.
Keven: Research published by College Board also suggests that higher education provides benefits outside the realm of individual financial gains. Those holding a college degrees tend to contribute more to society; on average, they vote, volunteer, and donate blood more often than those with lower education (Baum and Payea 2005: 23, 22, 24). Earning a degree can promote personal improvements too. 73% of degree holders report being in “excellent or very good” health, 11 percentage points higher than high school graduates (Baum and Payea 2005: 18). 14% of college graduates reported smoking, while highschool graduates were twice as likely to smoke (Baum and Payea 2005: 19).
Emmett: Despite its benefits, access to education remains an issue. 53% of people born to parents in the top income quintile earn a college degree, compared to 38% of the upper-middle fifth, 25% of the middle fifth, 20% of the second-lowest fifth, and a mere 11% of those in the bottom fifth (Haskins 2008: 6). So, while going to college is certainly a ticket to social mobility, this ticket is highly tied to the income bracket one is born into.
Keven: Education is a potential route towards happiness, comfort, and success, but how often do people make it? Is the American Dream attainable?
Annika: If you prove that you’re intelligent and work extremely hard, it is possible to move up, but in general the cases that get publicized like you know, I wrote a song at 12 and it became famous and now I’m living the rich life. Those are the cases that succeed, that it isn’t freely granted.
Mira Tellegen: We live in a system where the American dream is that utopia. But I think, you know, progress is progress. We’re always moving towards hopefully a better system.
Hannah: I think there’s a lot of people that fall between the cracks and sometimes they don’t even really, um, end up achieving anything. They spend most of their life struggling. And so maybe they don’t even really get the chance to think of success at all because they’re too busy thinking about real, real life.
Christa: And what kind of people? Who are the ones that fall between the cracks and who are the ones that don’t?
Hannah: Privilege is a big part of it. Um, I think obviously if you’re someone who’s white, you’re heterosexual, particularly you’re a man, you’re so much more likely to be able to attain that vision of success. Whatever it be.
Keven: We found that across all different backgrounds we interviewed, Gen Z respondents mentioned how our cards given at birth, unfortunately, play a role in achieving the American Dream. One response in particular stood out.
Lukas: I don’t think I’m going to face too many barriers, well like societal barriers cause I mean I’m a white man so I mean when it comes to society I kind of had the advantage on most things and that’s. And I recognize, I recognize that I have a white privilege.
Emmett: Another aspect to consider is income, and how that affects the attainability of the American Dream. Those with lower amounts of money coming in, tend to struggle more. In terms of social mobility, children of poor parents are substantially more likely to stay in that income bracket. 42% of them in fact (Isaacs 2008: 5). Another 42% end up in the lower-middle or middle fifth (Isaacs 2008: 5). This is a stark comparison to children of parents in the top fifth. 39% of these children stay in the top bracket, and another 37% end up in the upper-middle or middle fifth (Isaacs 2008: 5).
Keven: From our interviews, we noticed that those with more income tended to worry less. Lower income participants showed more stress when it came to buying items in the future and things that they want to have happen, but can’t afford.
Mira: I think that I’ve been fortunate enough to never have to struggle with the idea of the American dream because I was born.
Lukas: Um, I would like to get my own place. I’m going to need to get my own place and go to Grad school. So I need to save up for that and that stresses me the hell out.
Christa: Are you going to be a renter or an owner?
Lukas: Oh, I’m definitely going to be a renter. I’m definitely going to be a renter.
Keven: Having children, a stereotypical aspect of the American Dream, is also an expensive life decision…one that can derail the life plans of one group in particular.
Hannah: I have like fears of my success with being a parent is that I don’t, I don’t wanna get sidetracked. And even like the best, if you’re in a heterosexual relationship and you’re, you know, the woman, even if your partner is the most supporting and loving and understanding and open minded person, they’re very flexible, you still find it more often than not, the women are the ones that kind of naturally fall into that position of taking care of the kid. They’re the ones that put their job on hold and their life kind of becomes, it starts to revolve around the kid and like, you know, obviously when you have a kid, your life should revolve around it, but it shouldn’t be predominantly one parent over the other.
Emmett: Tied into the income distribution, is social mobility. Many of the people we interviewed mentioned how social mobility isn’t the same anymore, and that while there is some social mobility, it is exclusive to chance. And they are right. Social mobility is declining, and the wealth gap is widening, and disadvantage still exists for many groups of people. An article published by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis found that, “In the United States , children born to parents in the bottom fifth of the income distribution have a 7.5 percent chance of reaching the top fifth. That compares with about 9.0 percent in the United Kingdom, 11.7 percent in Denmark, and 13.5 percent in Canada” (Chetty 2015) So, in sum, you are twice as likely to achieve this facet of the American Dream… in Canada.
Keven: But what makes the American Dream, American then? Our respondents predicted it tied to American history, especially the history of the American Dream, and suggested it doesn’t necessarily apply in the same way anymore.
Annika: It ties back historically to the idea that immigrants could come and work their way up, and get their own house and land, and succeed.
Hannah: Obviously the middle class has changed and it’s, it’s shrunk and it’s, it’s suffering.
Keven: Hannah isn’t wrong. In fact, a majority of the responses we received were accurate, especially when it came to social mobility. But a mass majority of people overestimate the extent that people actually move up in wealth. Possibly we are just optimistic; however, it is more probable that we are uneducated in social mobility. Research indicated that the lack of information plays a significant role in overestimating social mobility (Kraus 2015). Those with higher-education, like the people we interviewed, tend to overestimate less (Kraus 2015). Research also found that one’s social class determines how we see social mobility. Those who belong to the upper-class overestimate social mobility more frequently than the lower-class (Kraus 2015).
Emmett: You know, personally, I’ve heard many inspirational quotes base themselves on the premise that ‘anything is possible, if you just never quit and work hard enough all your dreams will come true’. The American Dream seems to follows the same logic. It’s idealistic., But it’s unfortunately, not always true.
Keven: Overestimates in social mobility could potentially be a positive mindset to keep! The same research suggested that belief in higher social mobility could increase drive in individuals, even those of low-income, for economic advancement and success (Kraus 2015).
Emmett: But was social mobility always this low? Are we really doing better than our parents? We found a wide range of responses…
Annika: Oh no, my dad, his family, his father was a lawyer; they were very rich. My mom, her family, my grandfather was a doctor, my mom was like, a politician. So they grew up in a completely different way than I did. I mean, my dad went off to boarding school.
Shiva Bucklin: My socioeconomic status I would define as upper class. So we did tend to have wealthy people around us and my parents were fortunate enough to make good money by working hard and working up their ways in the socioeconomic ladder.
Hannah: My mom did everything by the books, you know, she grew up in a nice family that had, you know, a comfortable amount of money. She was smart to begin with. She educated herself and she got a job as an art teacher and she picked a career that did not pay a lot of money and then we didn’t live always comfortably.And I just saw how even though we had a house and we had a car and we had, you know, we had a dog and we had all of these things that are romanticized. I feel like a lot of it was like an image that my mom was desperately trying to, like, um, she was trying to not only maintain, but continue to pursue.
Keven: Hearing from these members of Gen Z, we’ve agreed, the American Dream has yet again, been redefined. The old definition is unrealistic, placed out of reach for many. We see we still want material desires, the success, but much more stress is placed on just, happiness. Doing what you enjoy, living comfortably, and even as simple as keeping your head above water.
Emmett: Did you enjoy todays episode? Interested in finding out more? Check out our website at deathsexandmoney.sites.grinnell.edu where we delve deeper into subjects brought up in this podcast. Thank you for tuning in to this episode of Money Today. We hope you enjoyed and we hope you find our additional research of value. Interviews for today’s podcast were conducted by our producer Christa Cohran. Thanks Christa.