A Mirror Held Up to the World: Examining the American Dream

“I suspect there will never be a requiem for a dream, simply because it will destroy us before we have the opportunity to mourn it’s passing.”                       – Hubert Selby Jr., Writer

Tax Credits. Money. 2012. Web. Flickr.com. 23 April. 2016

The concept of the American dream is one I first became familiar with as a child. Whether it was through passive listening to some news program or a phrase I heard chirped out during a Star Search-style show, the undeniable enchantment of the rags-to-riches tale was laced with a peculiar and a romantic intrigue. After hearing it spoken of so luminously a few times, I recall asking my mother if it was just about getting rich. “More or less,” she said, and that was that.

In the last few years, the idea of the American dream has been faced with many questions about the real possibility of its existence. With the economic collapse of 2008 and the struggle for the global economy to lumber back to its feet, it’s a belief that has been considerably bedraggled. The exporting of manufacturing jobs, stagnant wages and the inability for many people to buy houses have led many to believe that the most familiar of hopes has been laid bare.

In a recent article for Fortune Magazine, writer Dan Primack speaks of the state of this most inspiring and seemingly elusive of dreams. While Primack thinks the dream is now dead and worries for his daughter, the cause of his concern is not her intelligence or work ethic – or that of her generation – but the inability of those who are successful to even recognize their success, and how this debilitates the dream entirely.

According to an annual survey Primack cites by the global investment firm Legg Mason, there are five things that comprise the American dream: financial security, being able to live the way you want, retiring at 65, owning a home and understanding the value of hard work. While this survey determined that only 36% of those with a million dollars in investments assets thought they had attained this dream, for such an omnipresent cultural dream it’s telling that only one point doesn’t directly correlate to material well being.

Like the downtrodden Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, chasing after business success until the illusion finally destroys him outright, this infatuation with the dream appears anew in Donald Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again.” The political phrase was first used by Ronald Reagan in 1980, but more than 30 years on – in a different economic and international climate – it’s hard to imagine what current relevance such a re-hash has. If anything, it seems like a dangerous indulging of a past that is gone, harkening back to glory days which can’t be relived. However, it is not the possible death of the American dream or any dream that is the real issue, but the inability to let go of – or redefine – what defines us. The dreams of yesterday, once the illusion lies in tatters, can do nothing more than fuel the same, unfillable tank.

In his article, Primack seems to chastise the wealthy for not valuing their financial health, but it’s possible there is more to it than mere dissatisfaction; perhaps it is the metric for success that is inherently unsatisfying. It may be an aspect of the human struggle that as soon as we attain something, we want something else, but surely if this many people have clambered up the financial ladder and found the top rungs wearing beneath their feet, something is amiss with the end goal. Perhaps, some other possibility exists beyond the old ideals.


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