Rethinking the American Dream

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!

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