The Perspective on The American Dream

By Jordan Stutts
 Unspalsh / michael-battaglia
*Updated 2018
The American dream, a national ethos of economic betterment, has been battered and bruised in the years following the Great Recession. The financial crisis has been declared over, but for many, this is a notion they’ve heard more than personally felt. Years of lackluster job growth and stalled wages have left many wondering if the American dream is just that – a dream.
Here are three arguments for and against America still being the land of opportunity.


The deck is stacked against you  


Young people aren’t doing as well as their parents

It is becoming harder for young people to reach a higher standard of living than their parents. One study shows that only half of children born in the 1980s grew up to earn more than their parents, a steep drop from 90 percent of children born in 1940.

This is leading young people to delay traditional life milestones. In 2012, 20 percent of adults had never been married, compared to 9 percent in 1960. Also, in the past few years, over half of adults ages 18 to 34 have been living with their parents, and are slightly more likely to live in their parents’ homes than they are to live with a spouse or on their own.


Americans aren’t earning more money

The ability to elevate one’s social standing has been an important part of the American dream, but wage growth in the US has significantly stalled over the last few decades, and it currently lags behind job growth. Economic Policy Institute research shows more than 90 percent of American households between 1979 and 2007 saw their incomes grow at a slower rate than historical averages. Even more, between 1979 and 2013, US productivity grew 8 times faster – 64.9 percent – than worker compensation did (at 8 percent). While wage growth has  picked up in recent months, the last few decades’ poor performance overshadows any optimism that this will be a consistent trend.


Education doesn’t mean a good job

The promise of working hard to get ahead in life is falling short for young people in the US investing in education. Unemployment rates continue to fall and are at an all-time low of 3.9%, but that doesn’t necessarily mean good jobs are plentiful; data from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York shows that around 44 percent of college graduates were employed in jobs that don’t require a degree. What’s more, studies show that once college graduates take a non-degree-related job, they are more likely to remain underemployed five years later.



Opportunities still exist


Americans continue to reinvent themselves

The new century ushered in changes that continue to ripple throughout the world, but America is in a great position to meet these changes. New industries, and the rebirth of traditional ones, are replacing the nearly 9 million jobs erased during the Great Recession. Look no further than the tech industry. US cities consistently ranked as top job magnets are places with thriving tech hubs: San Francisco, Austin, Raleigh, etc.

The US auto industry has also seen a massive turnaround from a decade ago. Vehicle production fell below 6 million units in 2009, but has since rebounded to 12 million and remains consistently high. The energy industry has seen a renaissance as well. Advances in drilling technology, the increase in natural gas use and the growth of renewable energy employed 6.4 million Americans in energy sector jobs last year – a growth of 5 percent, with 300,000 net new jobs.


Americans have more opportunities than they think

As American industries create new types of jobs, young people have more openings to enter the workforce than they might realize. Attaining an education has become easier as well; according to the US non-profit The College Board, $123.8 billion in scholarships and grants were awarded in 2014-2015, and federal government grants increased from $20.6 billion in 2005-2006 to $41.7 billion in 2015-2016.

To tackle student loan debt, now a collective $1.4 trillion nationwide, states like Oregon and Tennessee are beginning to offer free tuition for community college, and New York recently passed legislation that significantly reduces the cost of four-year college tuition. Opportunities are also emerging from the rise of cheap or free online courses, with the number of students now topping 35 million in 2015 – double from the year before.


The American Dream is what you make it

There was no mention of jobs or wages when historian James Truslow Adams first coined the phrase “American Dream” in 1931. To him, the promise of America was “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone.” This is a less materialistic vision, and it can’t be quantified by mere numbers shown in studies today.

For some, The American Dream is to reach new financial heights, and for others, it may be to own a business. Some dreamers want to shatter gender barriers, and others move to America with the single hope that their children can have a better chance in life. All of these dreams are possible in America, just like they were in Truslow’s time.


Bottom Line: Trends indicate that young people in the US have it harder than their parents did, yet they are still finding innovative ways through which to succeed. What does this mean for the American Dream? For you, does America signify the land of opportunity?

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