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Is the American Dream Still Alive?

Is the American dream dead, alive, or evolving?

Suze Orman has me all riled up. In a recent blog post, Forbes, writer, Jenna Goudreau, quoted Suze Orman as saying this: "My only fear in life, when it comes to money, is what's happening in the United States of America. The American dream is dead for the majority of America."

My first thought after reading that quote was, "really?" Now that I've had a few weeks to think it over, my thought is still, "really?"

The Forbes article also stated that, "Orman believes the hope of someday owning a home, of working one job for life and retiring at 65 has been crushed by the financial crisis." Maybe it's the way I grew up or maybe it's the generational difference, but Ms. Orman's definition of the American dream has never been the definition I have followed in my life.

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James Truslow Adams first coined the phrase "American dream," in 1931 in his book The Epic of America. In it, Adams described the American dream this way:
"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."

As I reflect on Adam's quote, I think of the following examples which have helped me to shape my own definition:

  • I think of my parents, who owed a successful plastic injection molding company for fifteen years. My dad started the business in the early 1980's, during similarly awful economic circumstances. He worked two jobs until he was able to focus his time exclusively on the business. My mom stayed at home with my brother and I until we went to school, then she took a part-time job while also working with my dad at the business. The business started with one molding machine in an old barn that housed pigs out in the country of small-town Wisconsin, and it eventually grew into a three-shift operation employing over 40 people.
  • I think of the time I spent working with federal bankruptcy judge, the Hon. Margaret D. McGarity, when I was in law school. At her urging, I attended a swearing-in ceremony for new U.S. citizens, an event I will never forget. While those new citizens may have dreamed of owning a home and retiring at age 65, I imagine they were more concerned with simply making a better life for themselves and their kids, and hopeful that by working hard and making good choices, their dreams would come true.
  • I think of my cousin who will be graduating from college next year, at the beginning of crafting her own American dream - whatever that may entail.

The America of today looks much different from the America of past generations. While some people may still share Ms. Orman's definition, I think the beauty of the American dream is that each person can craft his or her own definition of what it means and then choose the means by which to achieve it. In addition, isn't the thought of achieving the American dream something that helps keep people going during challenging times? And, wouldn't it also make sense, then, that as America evolves, so too does our definition of what the American dream means?

I'd love to hear from you...

What are your thoughts?

Is the American dream dead; or, is it just evolving?

Does the "American dream" need to have a fixed definition, and if yes, did Mr. Adams get it right nearly 80 years ago?

What's your definition?


Adams, J.T. (1931). The epic of america. New York: Little, Brown, and Company.

Goudreau, J. (2010, November 23). Suze orman: ‘The american dream is dead.' Forbes. Retrieved December 1, 2010, from



Paula Davis-Laack, J.D., M.A.P.P., is a stress management and work/life performance expert providing strategies for a healthier, more resilient you.


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