Rethinking the American Dream

by Ron Haynes

As our retirement accounts dwindle and jobs become scarce, is our shared ideal of an American Dream dead or is it simply getting re-defined?

The American Dream used to be a shared set of ideals: hard work, the opportunity to make something of yourself, freedom to think, worship and speak your mind, and the elevation of the common man. When our country was first founded, we were constantly comparing ourselves to Europe with an eye on NOT falling into the trap of an aristocracy and a peasant class. In America, we would elect our leaders, we would have input into how we were governed, and we would be responsible for ourselves rather than depending on the shifting and wavering benevolence of a king.

Part of the American Dream was identified at Franklin Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union address. He prepared America for war by articulating his “four essential human freedoms” — the reasons we were entering a war:

  1. Freedom of speech and expression
  2. Freedom of every person to worship God in his own way
  3. Freedom from want
  4. Freedom from fear

The Four FreedomsNorman Rockwell, the famed artist from The Saturday Evening Post, listening to the President, seized on these ideas to paint his Four Freedoms collection and they quickly became a glimpse into how we as a nation viewed ourselves. His blue-collar worker standing up to give everyone a piece of his mind was called Freedom of Speech. His painting of an elderly lady praying in church was called Freedom of Worship. He painted a family gathering around what appears to be a Thanksgiving table and called it Freedom from Want and to paint Freedom from Fear, he portrayed a loving father and mother peeking in on their peacefully sleeping children, who were sharing a bedroom AND a bed.

In particular, Freedom from Want strikes me.
The home is plainly decorated, no $15,000 dining room table, no granite topped buffet, no over-the-top floral centerpiece, no super-duper window treatments, and no overflowing bounty of food (just turkey, celery and fruit). He painted an obviously happy family, glad to be together, with plenty of love and smiles go around.

As World War 2 ended and the troops came home from Europe and The Pacific, our shared ideal of the American Dream began to evolve and grow. Homes grew in size and became the foundation how we defined the American Dream. Somehow, that dream morphed from having a home into also having a television set, owning a car, traveling to exotic locals, having the latest gadget for the kitchen, obtaining a college education, and ever escalating wages. Between 1950 and 1960 the number of television sets in the US grew from 6 million to 60 million and between 1945 and 1965 the number of adults with 4 year college degrees doubled. We began expecting more and more and our American Dream grew into the strong belief that children should “have it better” than their parents. Status quo was no longer good enough. Somewhere, somehow, freedom from want became freedom TO want and greed took over.

In the process, we’ve turned the American Dream into something that not everyone can achieve, but boy, oh boy, do we ever try.  Today, with 60 years of consumerism under our collective belt, personal debt at stratospheric levels, and the collapse of our credit and economic systems, some segments of our society are finally beginning to realize that the American Dream needs to be rethought.  Back when it was a shared set of ideals (a hard work ethic, freedom to think, worship and speak, and freedom of opportunity), everyone could achieve those. Those ideals can’t be bought, they’re just who you are.

We need to transition from buying and having to being and doing.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with having nice things. There’s nothing wrong with getting a college education, or buying high quality items, or with satisfying “wants.” But our culture has moved from dividing everything into luxuries and necessities to putting everything into the necessities box.

So what would your life and mine look like if we were more focused on the “content of our character” rather than the content of our homes? What if we were more interested in being a great husband or wife or employee or boss rather than being the most up-to-date with our gadgets or vehicles or clothing? What would happen if we were more interested in having an impact on our families and our communities rather than having the biggest and best house in the community? What if we freely gave of ourselves rather than collecting and stashing stuff?

My pastor is fond of saying that the only two things that will last on this earth is the Word of God and the souls of people. Whether you believe that or not, just remember these two things: you can’t take anything with you, and when you’re gone, people will remember who you were rather than what you bought.

Note: This post was included in the Carnival of Personal Finance at Wide Open Wallet. Thanks Ashley!

About the author

Ron Haynes has written 1000 articles on The Wisdom Journal.

The founder and editor of The Wisdom Journal in 2007, Ron has worked in banking, distribution, retail, and upper management for companies ranging in size from small startups to multi-billion dollar corporations. He graduated Suma Cum Laude from a top MBA program and currently is a Human Resources and Management consultant, helping companies know how employees will behave in varying situations and what motivates them to action, assisting firms in identifying top talent, and coaching managers and employees on how to better communicate and make the workplace MUCH more enjoyable. If you'd like help in these areas, contact Ron using the contact form at the top of this page or at 870-761-7881.

If you enjoyed what you just read and would like to get FREE email updates with the freshest articles from The Wisdom Journal delivered right to your inbox, subscribe today! It's ridiculously easy and you can unsubscribe at any time. Since your email address is never sold or abused, you can subscribe with confidence, PLUS you'll get free reports/guides/eBooks, subscriber only benefits, and other perks.



well you can’t disagree with those last comments…. nicely put. nice post. we can all use to focus more on meaning and what truly makes us feel free… so many “things” tend to clutter our spirits and weigh us down, anyway.


Last night in church, we had a continuing sermon on Joseph. Granted we have started and left off and picked up again. But the sermon was an overview of Joseph’s early life. Just to refresh us. Well the sovereignty of God was and is all through his life and what a blessing his life was, not just to his captors, the Egyptians, but to his own family, who had sold him into slavery. Reading Genesis again was a refreshing look at dealing with want, luxury, imprisonment and need and then luxury AND power. This article is a true representation of life in America. Free enterprise and capitalism is what this country was founded on…. But then….we need to keep it this way. And, God had all this in His plan, for our good. God bless America!!!

Sara at On Simplicity

I just thank goodness that my parents raised me to expect a lot of myself, but not be expect to get everything I want. I have a feeling this transition is a lot easier if you haven’t been spoon-fed the idea that you can have everything, and deserve everything.

John Rocheleau - Zen-Moments

Your thoughts on Norman Rockwell’s “Freedom from Want” painting said it all.

“In particular, Freedom from Want strikes me. The home is plainly decorated, no $15,000 dining room table, no granite topped buffet, no over-the-top floral centerpiece, no super-duper window treatments, and no overflowing bounty of food (just turkey, celery and fruit). He painted an obviously happy family, glad to be together, with plenty of love and smiles to go around.”

My wife and I live simply relative to most. We purchase only what we can afford, and as a result we appreciate everything. Most of all we have learned to appreciate the truth of the old saying, “the best things in life are free.” Trite but true :-)

Jeremy Day

Hi Ron,

This is great reading. I think these words need to be shared with a lot more people!





Excellent post. I’ve been seeing a lot of posts about the American Dream lately, and I’m rather disgusted with how people are equating it with owning a home. I really liked your definition of it: hard work, the opportunity to make something of yourself, freedom to think, worship and speak your mind, and the elevation of the common man. I would also add the freedom to live the life you want to live (whether that involves buying a house or not!)

pam munro

Thanks to my parents to raising meell. The lessons I earned have helped shape the lives of me & my siblings – my life is particularly contented right now! We have an old apt. & 2 old vehicles & an old boat – and really enjoy ourselves! I always wondered about the “baronial” tendencies of the last few decades – Did they really BELIEVE it all? There is only so much room at the top & who wants to be there, anyway? Those up there are not noted for their happiness, are they?

I absolutely agree with getting back to basics a la the Four Freedoms and Rockwell’s depiction. We Americans have so MUCH – but many of us are so ahistorical and short-sighted and insular that they don’t even KNOW what they HAVE. Watch some more shows on TV that are about Africa, or India or anywhere else – and look at the backgrounds of TODAY & then think of the solidity of the Four Freedoms house – we have that and Target, too (for a splurge on colored sheets). So be thankful!


I am printing this one out and hanging it on my desk so that when I find myself slipping into “want” mode (you know the fog where you completely lack the ability to define a want as something seperate from a need) I can get some clarity!

Already Know the Truth

:twisted: A country built on lies, betrayl, slavery, bigotry, hatred and down right evilness may only do one thing..and that is fail! Sorry the truth hurts… And NO no one is alive that started the country or built this nation however their are the sons of the fathers and what’s on top will fall to the bottom…that isn’t my quote.


Well, this IS my quote: The self-flagellation needs to stop. Just like I cannot go back and change my past with debt or bad decisions, this country cannot go back and change its bad decisions. The entire world ran on slavery for tens of thousands of years. Entire nations were betrayed and forced into slavery. Does that mean ANY thing that’s done today is built on that past? Nope.

Only a deranged person feels guilty for something they didn’t do. Learn from the mistakes that others made, but don’t think that you’re doomed because of those mistakes, particularly if those mistakes happened 150 years ago!

Previous post:

Next post: