The American Dream Then & Now: Are We Doing Better Than Our Parents?

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american dreamDoes the American Dream—the opportunity to achieve success, prosperity and upward mobility through hard work—still exist?

Well, that depends on whom you ask.

A recent nationwide survey from LearnVest found that 43% of Americans today feel the dream is attainable for everyone—and about the same percentage feels that it’s within their grasp, personally.

And approximately 42% of those same respondents said they felt they were better off than their parents were at their age.

But how—and why—have our expectations changed? We asked four people across the country how they and their parents differ when it comes to defining the American Dream.

Ken‘I’ve been far more successful than my parents.’

Ken Rupert, 49, is a strategic analyst and author living in Hampstead, Md.

I always understood that my parents’ version of the American Dream wasn’t an option for people in my generation. We may not be able to work for one company our whole lives and expect a pension to retire comfortably, like my dad, who was an air traffic controller for most of his adult life. His path didn’t excite me—I’m naturally drawn to entrepreneurialism.

When I was in my early 20s, I had some debt and lived paycheck to paycheck. It wasn’t until my wife and I got married 21 years ago that I realized I craved more financial security for myself and my family—especially for our 12-year-old son, who has special needs. Our top priority is knowing that our son will always be cared for. Before he was born, my wife worked as a medical billing specialist, and now she’s a stay-at-home mother who volunteers at our church. By saving carefully and living off only one of our two salaries for four years, we’ve built a large trust for our son’s future.

My parents, who are in their 70s, still have a mortgage, whereas my wife and I live in a house that we paid off in just a few years by using money from a company buy-out that I received and some of our savings. When my parents reached retirement, they had about $500,000 in savings; we have nearly $800,000 already. My dad has Alzheimer’s disease and my mom has worried so much about caring for him and running out of money before they pass away. I don’t want my wife to ever have to worry like that.

RELATED: How I Saved More Than $1 Million for Retirement

About a year and a half ago, I began a part-time career writing finance books and working as a strategic life coach and planner. Although I’m passionate about my work and would like to do it full time, I’m practical enough to know that I need to keep my full-time job to maintain benefits and a steady salary. To me, the American Dream is the ability to pursue your passion and be free—but to be smart about how you do it.

What my mom thinks:

My mom told me, “Basically, the idea was you get out of high school, get a good job, get married. The wife stays at home and supports the husband and family, and the husband gets a good job working for one company his whole life, and retires with pensions and benefits. That’s the American Dream,” he says.

My mother says her greatest fear is to be destitute and to have to live with one of her children. I do my parents’ investing, and I was extremely proud to be able to give her a sense of security by showing her the numbers and saying, “You won’t have to worry about that.”

  • Jenna

    Great article. As a single, childless 42 year old woman I waffle back and forth over not having children but then I keep coming back to the fact that the next generation will not enjoy what mine has in terms of employment and (semi) security. I feel for my friends children who will head off to college in the next few years without any sense of certainty that a well paying job will be available for some time.
    I also like the idea of selling off my house to live (rent) in diff parts of this country….hmmm…..

  • danatron

    I’ve been saying for years I will never have what my parents do. Partially because I won’t ever work for an organization like my dad did for 30 years, and partially because jobs like he had are almost non-existent now. I won’t have a pension, I probably won’t ever have a job with a 401k match like I did for a few years in my 20′s, I definitely don’t own a house like they did in their mid-20s. I could talk about this ALL DAY, but I won’t. Things are just so much harder, and there are a limited number of industries that allow anyone to “get ahead”. The thing that is ironic is that friends refer to us as the most fiscally responsible people they know, but I feel like we have so little and don’t know how we’ll ever afford a home, or what “retirement” will look like. It’s pretty much the thing that worries me everyday. I feel like I live my life waiting for time to pass to not feel so fearful about everything. I am not sure that day will ever come.

    • Nic Baker

      About the American Dream: I’ve seen several studies that economic mobility is now much lower in the U.S. than in many other industrialized countries. It is still possible to move up in economic class (say, from poverty to the middle class), but much less so than in the past. The American Dream may still be alive, but it’s struggling.

  • DCLady

    I can’t help but notice that the two people who have chosen to eschew the “American Dream” do not have children. As stated in the first story, everything changed for him when he had his son. And it does – priorities change because suddenly you have a child to take care of (who takes an inordinate amount of time, energy, and money). But part of what makes the world go round is different people with different goals/paths. Some people want kids, some don’t, and more and more people are waiting to have children. In the past, the plan of action was get married, have kids. That has changed, so the American dream has changed. It’s also too soon for a lot of people (i.e. millennials) to know whether or not they will be better off than their parents bc we still have decades of work left and many decisions about family to make. I do think, however, that it’s wonderful (as the others state) that so many people have been afforded the opportunity to blaze new trails, due to the choices of their parents (whether or not they agree with them). Despite the ongoing global economic issues, I think it will be exciting to see where the next generations take the world.

  • LeeLee

    Brandon’s story really rubs me the wrong way. His story reeks of spoiled rich kid who thinks it’s everyone else’s responsibility (public aid) to save him so that he can reach his personal enlightenment. At 37, one of his goals is to eventually be self-sufficient?! Moreover, he feels that he’s too good to make the sacrifices that everyone who is supporting him has had to make. He also makes an ignorant statement about the ignorance of retirement. He doesn’t even consider the possibility that at one point in his life he may not be physically or mentally able to continue working…. but chances are, he’s expecting someone else to bankroll that part of his life too.

    It’s great to not be focused solely on making and spending money. It’s also wonderful to find work that fulfills you. But looking down on those who make sacrifices to support themselves all while holding your hand out is despicable and abhorrent.

  • revooca

    As a millennial, I’d love to know why older generations tend to label mine as lazy, like in this article. We’re the most educated generation, but we graduated into the worst economy since the Great Depression. The world has gotten infinitely more complicated since our parents or grandparents were entering the job market, so it would be nice if older generations could stop making apples-to-apples comparisons about what it was like when they were younger. They grew up with job stability, living wages and companies that valued their employees over their stockholders. How many of MY peers will be able to raise a family on one parents’ income? How many of MY peers will receive social security when we can finally afford to retire? IF we can afford to retire. This is the world we INHERITED; and then the people who created this situation for us have the gall to call us lazy, as if all we have to do is TRY harder and everything will be just like it was when they were younger. That’s pretty hard to stomach when I know when my parents were my age, they already could afford to get married, buy a home and have a child, all on one income. And I assure you that we are just as hardworking and intelligent as our parents; they raised us, after all.