Does 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.
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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.
'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.
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.”
'I gave up the amenities that my dad worked hard to provide for my family.'
Vanessa Runs, 31, is a writer and ultra-marathoner in San Diego, Calif.
My parents, Ulises and Estela Rodriguez (pictured above), immigrated to North America in the 1980s when I was just 3 years old. Though we ended up in Canada instead of the U.S. because our papers were approved there, my parents—who were fleeing the civil war in El Salvador—were in search of the American Dream and wanted to give my sister and I opportunities they never had.
Unfortunately, my mom died of leukemia when I was just 9. The years before and after her death were hard, and we were very poor, but my father remarried and worked constantly, taking any job he could get. Over time he was able to work his way up to the middle class, eventually buying a home, and helping me, my sister and my half-sisters get good educations. Today, he lives a comfortable life working as a caregiver for a woman with disabilities.
Initially, I wanted the financial success my father struggled to achieve. After I graduated from university, I got a good job as an editor, bought a condo and saved money. But at some point, I began to see security as a burden, and my possessions as chains, and I wanted the chance to pursue my passions—running and writing. In 2012, I sold my condo and all of my belongings, quit my job and moved to San Diego. Not long after, my boyfriend and I purchased and moved into a 22-foot Rialta RV. We’ve traveled 30,000 miles in the past year, and I’ve run over 2,000 miles.
I’ve found tremendous success on my own terms. Growing up with so little money, especially as a young child, has made me comfortable with living simply, and I make enough money writing to support our on-the-go lifestyle. Plus, I have a small nest egg from when I sold my condo. Though it’s unconventional, I’m living my own American Dream.
What my father thinks:
My dad isn’t thrilled about my lifestyle. I know he really wants me to have children, and that’s not a goal for me right now. Also, I spend my days traveling, and his idea of a healthy family dynamic is everyone living close together. Even so, I know that he’s happy that I’m happy, and he does see the allure of the open road. He recently visited me and my boyfriend in our RV, and he loved it. I have some guilt about giving up the amenities and possessions that he worked so incredibly hard to provide for me and my sisters—but at the same time, I believe the real gift he gave me was opportunity and the freedom to choose the life that I want.
'I don’t agree with my parents’ capitalist-focused American Dream.'
Brandon Peele, 37, (shown with his mother at right) is a social entrepreneur in Berkeley, Calif.
When I was growing up in an upper middle-class family in Chicago, my parents equated happiness with financial success, and groomed me to be a captain of industry. But while I was getting my MBA at Columbia University, I took a class on creativity and personal mastery (I don't believe it's taught any longer) that ultimately upended my beliefs—which were similar to my parents’ at the time—and triggered an existential crisis of sorts.
After graduation, I went to India, started reading philosophy and basically completely changed my beliefs. I realized I wanted to live a life of purpose, and that meant a life that isn’t centered around making and spending money.
For several years after business school, I was working with sustainable goods and global non-profit organizations. Then I launched two businesses—one for-profit social enterprise (EVR1) in 2012 and one non-profit community (Cosmic Citizenship Alliance) in 2013.
I make a healthy margin on EVR1 products, but as the Cosmic Citizenship Alliance is brand new, it is currently unfunded—we're trying to develop a funding model comprised of individual support and grants. I aim to be fully financially self-sufficient (able to pay my rent, pay for yoga and buy groceries) with these two structures. I'm close, but not there yet.
I do have some debt. I don’t have any savings and I liquidated my 401(k) to help fund my businesses, but I never plan to retire; the entire concept of retirement is ignorant. If you know who you are, and do what you love, you don’t need to stop working.
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I don’t have an emergency plan. Outside of my health insurance and public aid programs, I'm completely un-hedged, and, in the conventional sense, unprepared for catastrophe. Sure it would be great to have security, but not at the cost I feel our society requires: khakis, small talk, indoor meetings and two hour commutes in exchange for a white-collar job and $150,000 a year. I'm living my purpose at 37—something most folks never get to do in their eight decades—so I have no problem checking out early. I feel like I'm in the groove of optimal human experience. The only question is: How much more awesome does the future have?
My siblings and I have realized that our children will never be as well off as we are. The American Dream is largely a myth now.
Brandon’s mother says:
I went to work for Merrill Lynch when my sons were 2 and 4. At the time, very few financial advisers in the U.S. were women (unfortunately, it's still less than one-third today). Though I worked very hard, and often put in long hours, I had great success and enjoyed my career. I was able to retire at age 55, which is something I’m proud of.
Brandon is the first to admit that his father and I gave him advantages that have allowed him to make the choices he has. My siblings and I have realized that our children will never be as well off as we are. Of my eight nieces and nephews, only one will likely have the same financial success that we’ve enjoyed (and all of them except one have bachelor’s degrees or higher!).
The American Dream is largely a myth now. It can be harder now to make the same amount of money; the market has changed dramatically. Many people Brandon’s age don’t choose to work as hard as my husband and I did, and in many ways, I can understand their desire for balance. But a lot of people do work hard and they still can’t make ends meet. We’re in a hard economic time right now.
“I’m not looking for the same success my parents have—but I wish I could find a job.”
Emily Homonoff, 22, (shown with her mother at right) is a recent college grad living in New York City.
I’ve been looking for a full-time job in publishing since I graduated from Hampshire College last spring with a bachelor’s degree in media studies and comparative social change—with no success. My parents are supporting me and letting me stay at home rent-free, so I haven't had to worry about money for my basic needs, and I know that I'm immensely lucky in this regard.
With so many qualified applicants all searching for the same entry-level jobs, I've found myself in a maze that is innately difficult to navigate. The economy is partially to blame, but it’s also a scapegoat; I’m learning that, more than anything, finding a job in this market is a numbers game. You have to ask for an insane number of favors and do a crazy amount of networking just to get someone to speak with you. My mom has connections because of her work (she hosted a book-themed radio show and holds book events), and she alone has given me at least 40 leads—but none of them have panned out yet. I’ve sent more than 100 applications so far. I’ll keep going until I get something.
I've always admired my parents' work ethic: work hard, but most importantly, do your best. I’m not looking for the same financial success that they enjoy, but I would like to find a job and get started on my career in the book industry—that would make my whole family happy.
Emily's mother says:
My hopes and dreams in my early 20s were to have children and to build a close and loving family. I’d say Burt and I have achieved that goal. Starting a family and modeling the way I grew up was how I saw life in Rhode Island unfolding. Burt was in the family business, and it was a luxury not to have to work until I chose to start a career later in life.
I have huge concerns about today's economic climate and some of the obstacles that my adult children and other young people face. It’s mind-blowing to me how difficult it is for an intelligent, well-connected, mature young person like Emily to get an interview, much less a job.
I believe that for a certain segment of the population, especially kids who’ve grown up with many privileges like traveling, eating out, "designer" coffee all day long—these things will be a mere memory. In my opinion, they will, in effect, be going backwards.
Many of Emily's generation have had more handed to them than we did, so maybe they don’t have the same expectations of hard work that my generation had. Some of it is the economy. Graduates are taking internships, and companies seem less willing to hire. I think that for these kids, the American Dream is harder to attain—but it’s well worth the effort.
LearnVest Planning Services is a registered investment adviser and subsidiary of LearnVest, Inc. that provides financial plans for its clients. Information shown is for illustrative purposes only and is not intended as investment, legal or tax planning advice. Please consult a financial adviser, attorney or tax specialist for advice specific to your financial situation. The people interviewed in this piece are neither clients, employees nor affiliates of LearnVest Planning Services. LearnVest Planning Services and any third-parties listed, discussed, identified or otherwise appearing herein are separate and unaffiliated and are not responsible for each other’s products, services or policies.