Are Millennials Reinventing the American Dream?

The postwar version of the American Dream remains in the national psyche.

Posted Sep 06, 2019

One doesn’t have to be an expert to know that the American Dream is deeply engrained in the collective and individual psychology of most Americans. The American Dream was originally defined by James Truslow Adams as the “vision of a better, deeper, richer life for every individual, regardless of the position in society which he or she may occupy by the accident of birth.” This vision continues to shape the everyday lives of many of us, even though it exists only in our imaginations.

History helps explain how the American Dream became such a powerful force encouraging us to do many of the things we do.  Although the phrase was not coined until 1931, the fundamental idea is even older than the nation itself.  What would come to be known as the American Dream had much to do with the effort to break free from the shackles of the Old World, specifically the shackles of church and state—the basis for the then-radical notion of having the freedom to chart one’s own path in life.  Given the Founding Fathers’ vision of private property, it’s not surprising that owning a home eventually became the centerpiece of the American Dream.  (Having one’s own piece of land was, in fact, a big part of Jefferson’s “pursuit of happiness".)  The American Dream also has roots in Puritan ideology that prescribed hard work in order to achieve financial stability, which is one explanation for why so many of us believe that making more money will make us happier people.  Today, the American Dream is woven into the fabric of everyday life, especially in popular and consumer culture.  TV and movies reinforce a narrative based in aspiration, upward mobility, and an ethos of success, keeping the mythology very much alive even if the reality happens to be a much different story.

Because the American Dream is our society’s most powerful mythology, challenging or rejecting it is an understandably difficult thing to do.  (The fact that it is imaginary lends it even more cultural currency, I believe, as it has a potentially infinite set of meanings.)  If there is any dominant definition of the phrase, however, it is to achieve “the good life,” i.e., to enjoy financial stability best signified by owning a nice house in the suburbs with all the consumer trappings, followed by comfortable retirement.  This meaning of the phrase was cemented during the years following World War II when the domestic and consumerist American Way of Life emerged as our civil religion, due in part to Cold War politics.

Although an anomaly and a perversion of Adams’s original “be all you can be” concept, this postwar version of American Dream remains heavily entrenched in our national psyche because of its potency and ubiquity.  It’s long overdue that this narrative be permanently retired, however, as economic, social, and political forces make such a vision less relevant and achievable.  Happily, unlike baby boomers, many millennials are subscribing to the original and pure expression of the American Dream.  They are directly challenging the dominant narrative by choosing to be single, childless, renting, not going to college, or serial job-hopping—all things considered “un-American” not that long ago.  Student debt threw a giant monkey wrench into the works, one can reasonably argue, serving as a disruptive force that shaped the psyche of an entire generation.

Despite all this, there is much pressure for younger adults to literally buy into the postwar narrative of the American Dream.  It may very well be an anachronism, but the vision of the (mortgaged) house with the white picket fence occupied by two married, college-educated, and gainfully employed adults with 2.5 children remains an undeniably appealing one for many.  Only time will tell whether millennials and Generation Z will subscribe to the Eisenhower-era version of the American Dream or, instead, reinvent the concept as means to help guide their respective futures.