What is The American Dream?


By Carlos Portocarrero

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American Flag in wind

I’ve been reading a lot of this lately:

The American Dream has been shattered. It used to be that a hard-working person could pretty much bank on getting a job after school. And if they worked hard at it, they knew they would make enough money to buy a home and support their family. They would have insurance, they would be able to provide the things the family needed, and they would be able to have a comfortable retirement. Now the housing bubble has burst, unemployment has spiked, and the American Dream no longer exists. It is gone.

Is that really the American Dream—that if you worked hard at your job you would pretty much have a guaranteed “decent” lifestyle with a comfortable retirement?

Because I always thought the American Dream was this notion that anything is possible. That if you work hard and give it your all, you might hit the jackpot and become very successful. I thought the American Dream was that notion of potential. Of possibility.

That it was possible, not guaranteed.

Nothing is guaranteed—regardless of how hard you work—except for the chance at living the good life. In other countries, a large swath of the population never even gets a lottery number—they don’t get to play. But that’s how I always viewed the American Dream: everyone has a shot at it, no matter what.

It got me thinking about old-school industries like the car industry. There used to be factory jobs where people showed up to work, put in their 30 years or whatever of hard work, and then were taken care of for life. Sweet retirement pensions meant that their future was guaranteed.

Now we know that this type of perk is unsustainable. That a company can’t carry all that shit on their books and stay profitable—it doesn’t make sense. This isn’t the death of the American Dream, it’s more like the awakening of reality. A pension sounds great and all, but to expect a guarantee like that seems unrealistic to me.

Maybe it’s because I’m from Guatemala. Nothing is guaranteed down there. You might have all your savings in a bank and then poof—turns out someone stole all the money and you’re never getting it back.

Ever.

Go to court to get it back? Please, you’re wasting your time. Press charges? Wasting your time and whatever money you have left.

Nothing is guaranteed down there. People work their asses off and they know that everything could be taken away tomorrow. It’s happened in past and that’s the shadow that everyone lives in. Everyone: rich, poor, middle class. Doesn’t matter.

That’s why Guatemalans save money, unlike Americans (until recently, anyway). They’re constantly worried about what might happen tomorrow so they save money or buy land—anything that might seem like a safer way to hold value.

There are no guarantees. It feels like this country is starting to get the gist of this idea and it’s a rude awakening.

But the American Dream? I don’t see that changing one bit…this is still the place where anyone can make it. Right now it’s just harder than it was before. But just because nothing is guaranteed, it doesn’t mean the dream doesn’t exist anymore.

This post was included in the MoneyCrashers Personal Finance Roundup.


4 Responses to “What is The American Dream?”

  • Evan Says:

    I think Americans forgot it is the PURSUIT of happiness NOT happiness…

  • Sara Bryan Says:

    Right on. Everything you say about the American Dream and No Guarantees. I agree!

  • Daniel Milstein Says:

    That is so true Carlos As an author and business man, I like how you said “Nothing is guaranteed—regardless of how hard you work—except for the chance at living the good life. In other countries, a large swath of the population never even gets a lottery number—they don’t get to play. But that’s how I always viewed the American Dream: everyone has a shot at it, no matter what”. I hope more people discover your blog because you really know what you’re talking about. Can’t wait to read more from you!

  • Giovanna Says:

    Well, it’s not a secret that the mood in the United States has now become decidedly pessimistic. The middle class is being squeezed and most Americans think our country is going in the “wrong direction.” Today, the economic situation in the United States has become really dire. While emerging economies continue to add jobs, America’s unemployment rate continues to hover around 10 %. Hit hardest by the recession has been a shrinking middle -class people. And, the essential part of the American identity, to my mind, is to ensure that our children can inherit a higher quality of life then we were privy to…

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