On a recent Saturday night, eight thoughtful adults from different walks of life gathered around a dining table to discuss what the American Dream means to us.
Sounds simple enough, right? But maybe not, with rising housing prices, uncertain job prospects and structural economic changes causing ripples of concern from millennials to boomers.
Countless movies have been made, books written and speeches given about the American Dream. But how often do we stop to think about, much less articulate, what the term means to us individually as well as to society as a whole?
James Truslow Adams, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and historian, coined the term in his 1931 book “The Epic of America.” Adams wrote that his American Dream is “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.”
Politicians are fond of conjuring gauzy notions of upward mobility that revolve around home ownership, typically a suburban ranch home with a lawn and a white picket fence, occupied by a married couple with two kids, and a car or two.
Those with a more critical view take issue with this image of conformity and complacency, often pointing to socioeconomic and cultural divides that keep many Americans from achieving their own version of the idyllic life.
Dictionary.com offers a contemporary definition of the phrase:
As the eight of us went around the table, I looked forward to hearing how each person framed his or her understanding of the American Dream. Call me a nerd, but I thoroughly enjoy discussions like these that shed light on our personal histories, illuminating our differences and commonalities, and offering new perspectives to consider.
Even before we began, I could see we were hardly a representative group: Three professors with PhDs, two medical doctors, an advertising professional, a small businesswoman/personal trainer (that would be Lori) and myself, a lifelong journalist now doing adjunct teaching and part-time work in communications for an education nonprofit.
All (or nearly all) of us live in Portland’s eastside neighborhoods, eight college graduates nestled in the city’s liberal cocoon, ranging in age from the mid-30s to the early 60s, and not a single one of us born in Oregon. All of us were raised in cities, or at least near them. One of our hosts lived abroad for several years but moved back to the United States to attend college.
I’d be hard pressed to fairly summarize each person’s take, but I’d venture to say there was general agreement with the idea that the American Dream is malleable, capable of being pressed into different interpretations without losing its original meaning.
Predictably, many of us first viewed the American Dream through the eyes of our parents, some growing up in the middle class with college-educated moms and dads and others aspiring to get there from the working class.
Lori spoke of her dad, the son of Slovenian immigrants and the only one of his siblings to attend college, and her mom, the quintessential ’50s housewife of mostly Italian heritage who also worked outside the home in various retail jobs.
I shared my perspective as the son of Mexican-American migrant farmworkers who didn’t have an opportunity to attend high school. My father became a factory worker and a stationary engineer, operating the boilers and other mechanical systems at an inner-city hospital. My late mother raised my two sisters and me while working as a seamstress and, later, as a taxi driver.
Each had eight siblings. To their credit, they were the only ones in their families to move away from the Salinas Valley to make a life for themselves in the San Francisco Bay Area. We grew up initially in a blue-collar town with a large Latino population, then moved to a white, middle-class suburb where the schools were better, the streets wider and cleaner, and the community character was pretty bland.
So what does the American Dream mean to me?
I offered a modest vision, couched in terms of financial security, physical safety and psychological freedom. I want for Lori and me to be comfortable now and in retirement, knowing we can pay our bills and have something left over. I want to be healthy and secure in our home and neighborhood. And, I want to know I am able to think, read, travel and act as I please.
But I also realized that definition was incomplete. I was being too selfish. I wasn’t accounting for anyone else’s well-being other than my own and Lori’s.
We’d been invited weeks earlier, so I knew the topic would arise. And in the days before the dinner, I reached out to a few friends and family members for their take.
Here’s what some of them had to say:
“It’s about a comparative level of comfort in this world — financially, ideologically and otherwise — and being afforded great opportunity….Even at my weakest points in life, I’ve had relative comfort and opportunity simply because of my birthright. I think that along with comfort and opportunity comes the responsibility to help create opportunity and comfort for others — even if that’s as simple as doing our best with what we have so we can reserve resources for others in true need.”
“When I think of my American dream, it is one of collective prosperity–not one where you just earn enough to take care of yourself. [My spouse] and I talk frequently about the inherent selfishness of our economic system. That kind of thinking (and behavior) leaves others behind….I want a fully integrated and prosperous society where there is no single model of success, but rather, endless ways to contribute.”
“After years of pursuit of the elusive American dream, I have come to believe that it is a utopian pursuit and a self-destructive ideal. It elevates self as a deity, and leads one to using people as objects and relationships as a means to an ever moving destination. I choose to pursue God and Love instead. The pursuit of love sees people and relationships as the destination.”
I was humbled by these perspectives and grateful for the chance to reconsider my own notions of the American Dream.
As a homeowner, college graduate and white-collar professional who climbed from the working class into the middle class, I’d hasten to say I’ve already realized some aspects of the dream on a personal level. But I also know without the love, support and sacrifices of my parents — and my wife of 41 years — it surely would not have been possible.
Their gifts, coupled with the recent conversation, remind me to think outside myself and to rededicate myself to the cause of helping others achieve their dream.
I’m thankful that I have two platforms for this. One, by working directly with college students, many of whom, like me, are the first in their family to attend university. Two, by working on behalf of Portland-area high school students, particularly those at high-poverty, high-diversity schools where many are first-generation immigrants.
Not everyone is so lucky as to be in position to have an influence on their future.
Photograph: H. Armstron Roberts/CORBIS