The American Dream holds many different connotations, but it is most commonly understood to be access to economic opportunity (Downs & Stetson, 2013; Starks, 2003). What it means to someone varies by individual perspective. Ryan E. Smith documents some of these different perspectives: “raise a family, buy the American dream house,” “that’s my dream, just to be self sufficient,” and “I think it’s about opportunity at the end of the day” (Smith, 2009). Overall, the consensus revolves around achievement, opportunity, or sufficiency. While the American Dream is a specific symbol of economic prosperity, how someone achieves that economic prosperity depends on their personal experience.
The Dream’s personal meaning depends on someone’s background and upbringing (Cullen, 2003). Experiences of the Dream can range from satisfaction to anger based on someone’s ability to achieve it (Hochschild, 1996). Specifically, what the Dream means for non-European immigrants and other people of color is different than what it means for white people (Madriaga, 2005; Hochschild, 1996). One perception of the Dream, largely influenced by white people, is a nice house and job that keep a family self sufficient and comfortable (Madriaga, 2005). This perception is one of the main ideas behind the Dream, and it influences other racial and ethnic groups’ ideals of the perfect American life (Hochschild, 1996). This difference affects the determination of an individual’s success. An immigrant family could be successful within their family and lifetime, but they may not be recognized as successful in the greater society. Furthermore, immigrants cannot achieve the Dream to the same degree as white people because they do not have the same accessibility to resources (Hochschild, 1996). Success is hindered without the same accessibilities and resources. Therefore, the Dream can create different emotional reactions on someone’s ability to succeed.
James Truslow Adams was the first to popularly mention the American Dream, and what it means for the United States (Adams, 1931). He states,
By there has been also the American dream, that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement… It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of a social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position (Adams, 1931, p. 404).
His reference to opportunity based on ability and achievement influences perceptions carried about the Dream today. Often, people think hard work and a strong work ethic will deliver the promises of the Dream (Hanson & Zogby, 2010; Madriaga, 2005). In 2006, 68% of people agree that hard work is the most important part of attaining the Dream while 20% think hard work and luck is equally important (Hanson & Zogby, 2010). Only 11% of people think luck is the most important aspect (Hanson & Zogby, 2010). People recognize hard work as a pathway to the Dream. Hard work is unique to the American perspective and identity. US citizens think, at a higher degree than other countries, future generations have the opportunity to enhance their standard of living (Hochschild, 1996). The American Dream is also a large part of the American identity. If someone’s work is not successful, they may have a difficult time aligning with the common American identity.
The expectation of hard work disregards that “for most of American history, women of any race and men who were Native American, Asian, black, or poor were barred from all but a narrow range of ‘electable futures’” (Hochschild, 1996, p. 26). Despite hard work, the Dream excludes marginalized groups of people. White and European immigrants set the standards, and anyone else incapable of keeping up is erased from the narrative of the Dream. The American identity refuses to acknowledge that a vast amount of people who cannot achieve the Dream (Hochschild, 1996). Instead, the American identity ignores these people.
Despite these barriers, people more often agree that immigrants can pursue the American Dream more than any other group (Hanson & Zogby, 2010). These people may think that, but there is no clarity on which immigrants they are including. The original American Dream is rooted from the colonization of European settlers (Hochschild, 1996). They ventured to America in hopes of religious freedom, and they commence the idea of a completely new sense of freedom (Hochschild, 1996). While European immigrants can pursue the Dream easily, immigrants from other locations cannot (Hochschild, 1996). There is a clear difference of accessibility to the Dream based on geographic heritage.
A majority of white people, when asked, associate the Dream commonly with homes and other material goods (Madriaga, 2005). Meanwhile, Latinx people associated it with hard work ethic and family—an answer exclusive to Latinx responses (Madriaga, 2005). They regard their family’s happiness and immigration as success (Madriaga, 2005). Immigrant parents bring their family to the United States in hope for the better opportunities the American Dream promises (Madriaga, 2005). White people’s answers reflect the common portrayal of the American Dream. Therefore, the Dream reflects their standards and excludes others’ standards.
Individuals agree poor people have the ability to attain the Dream solely through hard work (Hanson & Zogby, 2010). A majority of people, over four-fifths of a surveyed group, do not perceive race, gender, religion, or class as a burden to success (Hochschild, 1996). This perception disregards people’s systemic inability to access resources. Success is a large part of the American identity (Hochschild, 1996). Because of the large role success plays, failure can be hard to handle individually and socially (Hochschild, 1996). People are not made aware of failure as an option in their journey for success (Hochschild, 1996). When people do fail, it is incomprehensible how to react and what it means for an individual (Hochschild, 1996). When someone fails, people may believe it is a personal flaw for not working hard enough. This can be alienating and isolating for US residents, especially immigrants who are already culturally alienated.
There are three ways to measure success: absolute, relative, and competitive (Hochschild, 1996). Absolute success in the American Dream entails getting further than where someone started (Hochschild, 1996). Relative success is success compared to another person or time (Hochschild, 1996). And competitive success is attaining more success than another person overall (Hochschild, 1996). Since the Dream is based on success, people use these different levels of success to assess how well they have done. Some are more harmful than others in terms of individual identity.
In a society where resources are scarce or the definition of success is limited, success revolves around competitive success (Hochschild, 1996). In response, success embraces individual prosperity instead of collective achievement (Hochschild, 1996). People are left to support only themselves in a selfish way, and it can be frustrating to see others succeed. This creates an unhealthy from of competition. Furthermore, when the Dream works out for others, the more devastating it is for the people who do not achieve it (Hochschild, 1996).
When he discusses the American Dream, James Adams mentions the need for the United States to reassess values to understand the root of the Dream’s definition. He reflects if the values surround people as consumers, then big business will control society, and that is not good for people (Adams, 1931). Instead, the values at the core of the Dream should be “what values are best or most satisfying for [someone] as a human being” (Adams, 1931, p. 408). He addresses the importance that people as consumers are separate from people as humans, and the Dream should root itself in the “values of life” (Adams, 1931, p. 410). Without these life values, companies and corporations shape people into consumers (Adams, 1931). As consumers, society places someone’s ability to consume goods and stimulate the economy above their value as a human.
Adams provides powerful insight on the shape the United States takes after the Depression. He recognized, for the Dream to function as a positive symbol, underlying values needed to be established. For the Dream to revolve around individuals instead of businesses, the values needed to reflect human values and not economic values (Adams, 1931). After the Depression, the United States made a large turn towards consumerism, and consumerism continues to dominate American society (Ding, 2010). Like Adams predicted, large business and consumerism now controls America’s values. The American Dream relies on economic values—especially since it is more often known as access to economic opportunity (Downs & Stetson, 2013; Starks, 2003). Consumers are the heart of America and the American identity. Anyone who cannot play this role is marginalized from the American identity.
People differ on their ideas of the Dream’s success—whether the American Dream equates to material success or intrinsic success. In a poll from 2001, 32% of people defined the Dream as material goods, and 51% defined it as spiritual happiness while 17% were unsure (Hanson & Zogby, 2010). The interviewees’ perceptions may depend on how they define each of these groups. After the Depression, there was an increase in consumerism to help the economy. The idea of consumerism was deeply ingrained within people’s minds through advertisements and other propaganda.
Regardless of the Dream’s representation, it remains controlled by western ideals (Cullen, 2003). White people and Europeans control the narrative of the American Dream, and they use Eurocentric and western thought in its symbolism. Non-European immigrants, such as slaves forced from Africa, had to adjust to someone else’s dream (Hochschild, 1996). Although, some immigrants traveled here in purpose to achieve the Dream (Madriaga, 2005). To succeed, they have to follow someone else’s dream. This alienates immigrants from their previous culture because they assimilate to the American identity if they want to succeed. Their culture is unacknowledged, and they are left confused of their mixed identity.
Throughout the world, people hear of the American Dream and its effects. Its symbolism is powerful enough that people immigrate here to find success. One important aspect excluded from the narrative is the lack of accessibility to the Dream and the result of failure. But their failure is attributed to poor work ethic rather than systemic disadvantages. This exclusion from the narrative of the Dream misleads people on their ability to succeed. In result, people can experience negative emotions about the Dream. Ultimately, symbolism of the Dream ignores the negative aspects, and they misguide people’s perceptions on their individual personal ability to succeed.
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