Tracking The Ever-Changing American Dream

A new survey asks people what they think of their chances to better themselves in today’s America. The results are sobering, but not without hope.

Tracking The Ever-Changing American Dream
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The phrase “the American Dream,” coined by historian James Truslow Adams in 1931, is used by advertisers, politicians, and anyone else who wants to convince eager souls that it’s possible to make it in America. But the phrase means different things to different people, and it has been undoubtedly tainted by the economic recession that sent many so-called American Dreams tumbling.


Advertising agency JWT recently put out a report, “American Dream In The Balance,” that examines what the dream looks like today–and why it seems less achievable than it used it be. JWT put out its first report exploring the idea of the American Dream four years ago, when the country was waiting to find out if Barack Obama would be the next president. The dream is something that the Obama campaign liked to talk about, both then and now. In 2008, the president discussed his views on the American Dream: “A job with wages that can support a family. Health care that we can count on and afford. A retirement that is dignified and secure. Education and opportunity for our kids. Common hopes. American dreams.”

More recently, Obama told voters that “If you’re willing to put in the work, the idea is that you should be able to raise a family and own a home; not go bankrupt because you got sick, because you’ve got some health insurance that helps you deal with those difficult times; that you can send your kids to college; that you can put some money away for retirement … [people] do believe that if they work hard they should be able to achieve that small measure of an American Dream.”

That’s Obama’s version of the American dream, and it hasn’t changed much over the past four years. The same can’t be said for the rest of the country. “I think it’s really interesting to see people’s perspectives on the dream today versus yesterday because marketers have used the dream in advertising both subtly and overtly over the years, and they continue to use it, especially in the down economy,” says Ann Mack, director of trendspotting at JWT.

So what does the dream look like today versus four years ago according to JWT’s survey of 503 American adults? Some things actually are the same, including the top five factors that respondents say are a part of what the American Dream means today: finding happiness, personal independence, fulfilling my potential, home ownership, and freedom to be able to go anywhere I want.

But there have been changes. Americans today believe the dream is more about having wealth, access to credit, fame, and recognition than they used to. This isn’t an unconscious shift–people polled this year say that in the past, the dream was more about middle-class values, community, family, and getting married than today. Today, they say, consumption, making a lot of money, fame, equality, and succeeding professionally are more commonly part of the dream.

People increasingly believe that the dream, however they define it, is out of reach. This year, 61% of respondents agreed with the statement “More and more, the American dream is becoming unobtainable” versus 56% in 2008. And 42% this year think that their generation doesn’t believe in the dream, versus 38% four years ago.


Make no mistake: The dream isn’t dead. 70% of respondents personally believe in the American Dream, down just four points from 2008–not a bad showing considering the economic turmoil the country has endured in that time. Still, says Marian Berelowitz, author of the report: “There’s generally lower engagement with the idea. Most of our questions got a weaker response this year. We do still think the dream is alive, but there just seems to be a lack of enthusiasm or engagement with the whole idea.”

In general, people just think that the dream–while still alive–is less achievable than it used to be. In 2008, respondents were more likely to say the rising cost of goods, energy, and health care costs were responsible. Today, people point the finger at unemployment, banks, and losing out to other markets. Oddly enough, respondents believe that it’s now easier for Hispanic-Americans to achieve the dream than white Americans–but, says Berelowitz, “the U.S. census has found that white Americans have weathered the recession better than minority groups.”

This information is invaluable for brands hoping to capitalize on Americans’ lust for the dream. But as Mack explains, advertisers have to be conscious of how the dream has shifted. “There’s the idea of offering a modern alternative to the traditional dream. It might not be home ownership, maybe not every American can own a home, but perhaps it’s being able to rent a really nice place for you and your family.” (See this campaign from encouraging people to “take back the dream.”)

“The dream is becoming increasingly unobtainable or so people think. If brands acknowledge this new reality, I think it will resonate with consumers,” says Mack. And since 35% of survey respondents believe that corporations should help Americans achieve the dream, maybe brands can play an even bigger role than they think.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.