Personal Finance

The American Dream: How Has the Definition Changed Over the Years?

Expertise: Personal Finance
13 Articles Written
Close up portrait of handsome cheerful african man smiling looking at camera

This is the first post in a five-part series that explores how the traditional “American Dream” does not fit today’s world. The rest of the series will discuss what once constituted success and whether these sought-after milestones should be left alone, tweaked, or changed altogether.

Whether you’re a real estate investor, financial freedom enthusiast, FIRE movement advocate, or all of the above, you are someone who has questioned the status quo of the traditional American Dream. As we each endeavor down our unique pathways, we are—almost unknowingly—part of a much larger movement.

Together we make up a new assemblage of people who desire something different than what others have taught us is the “best” pathway. We dare to ask questions and challenge the norm. We don’t hesitate to think differently, even when family, friends, or co-workers raise eyebrows and chuckle at our dissimilar aspirations.

We are all looking at this thing called the “American Dream” and taking pause, trying to decide if deviating from the expected can bring more happiness and fulfillment. We hear stories of success that give us hope—hope that there are attractive alternatives better than our parents’ and grandparents’ journey.

With a series of posts, I’ll explore what many of us consider a broken “American Dream.” I want to delve into some of the new conceptions and expectations within the growing community of modern thought, which is finding a home in places like BiggerPockets and among audiences like FIRE enthusiasts.

Let’s begin with one of my favorite anecdotes I heard Brandon Turner explain in a BiggerPockets Podcast:

A boss takes their employee out to the company parking lot to show off their new car. The boss says, “Look at my gorgeous new Lamborghini! It has all the bells and whistles. It’s a blast to drive!” The boss goes on to say, “And Jimmy, if you work really hard this year, do everything you’re told to do and more, work lots of hours of overtime, and really produce like an all-star for the company, I’m going to be able to buy myself another one next year, too!”

This little story epitomizes one of the unfortunate aspects of the current explanation of the American Dream: It involves working the best hours of your day for the best years of your life to make someone else wealthy.

Related: Why Following the American Dream Just Might Rob You of Financial Control

What Is the Current ‘American Dream’?

In my opinion, the current version of the American Dream follows these 10 steps. And this version has an asterisk that warns: the American Dream is only available for those who choose to work hard (40 to 100 hours per week).

  1. Go to high school and get good grades.
  2. Go to college and get good grades (while probably taking out student loans).
  3. Get a good job.
  4. Continue to spend more as one makes more.
  5. Get married and have 2.3 kids and a dog.
  6. Buy the nicest house and car one can afford (financing both).
  7. Work for 40+ years to support one’s family.
  8. Retire at age 65.
  9. Enjoy the good life.
  10. Leave your children a nice inheritance when you die.

Front side of typical american porch colonial house with white traditional columns and pillars, beautiful garden in the back and forest

This plan has worked for millions of Americans over the years and continues to do so today. But many of us are starting to question some of those dogmatic steps.

We ask ourselves questions like:

  • What if one didn’t go to college?
  • What if one didn’t spend everything they made?
  • What if one wanted to spend more time with those 2.3 kids?
  • What if one didn’t aspire to work for someone else for 40+ years?
  • What if one wanted to enjoy the “good life” now?!

As a starting point, I wanted to see how the American Dream is being passed down to our youngest generation, Gen Z (ages 4 to 24 in 2019). In other words, what is the most current definition? How would Gen Z describe the American Dream? What do they think it includes? Does their version differ from older generations’ versions (such as mine)?

As a high school teacher, I had the privileged ability to find out.

How Do Young People Describe the American Dream?

I think each generation of Americans has slightly revised the definition of the American Dream as they made their mark on our country. But what do today’s teens think? How do they define the American Dream?

I surveyed about 100 high school juniors to find out. I did not prep them or give them notice that I would ask this question.

“What is the American Dream? Describe in a well thought out paragraph.”

I had them take a Google survey one day to find out their thoughts.

Some responses seemed to be a bit old-fashioned—maybe rooted in their parents’ viewpoints? Here are a few answers that appear more traditional:

  • “It means that I have a nice job and house.”
  • “Making a six-figure salary.”
  • “Two extremely cute dogs, two or more nice cars, and living in a nice neighborhood.”
  • “The American Dream is all about finding a woman, then marrying her and buying a house with your wife and then raising two kids in that house. Then watching your kids grow up and go off to college. Then once you and your wife turn 65, you both stop working and live freely.”
  • “I think the American Dream is becoming rich.”
  • “To live in the best house possible.”
  • “Having maybe one or two kids.”
  • “In the past, the American Dream was starting a family, owning a home with a white picket fence, going to college, and all the things in between that the generation before us wanted after the violent and war-ridden times of the early 1900s.”
  • “To most, it’s the idea of a big house, with a white picket fence, two kids, a dog, and a nice secure job. It looks financially stable while achieving your dreams.”
  • “My American Dream is to have a beautiful wife, 2 or 3 kids, a nice house, and a job that supports my family.”

Related: Warning: Your “Dream House” Will Chain You to Your 9-5 & Rob You of Wealth-Building Potential

Other responses mentioned immigrants coming to America or something similar. These included:

  • “Everybody who is an American citizen has an opportunity to make their lives better and live a prosperous life.”
  • “The American Dream has driven millions of immigrants to the peak of American society because in America, everyone is given a fair chance, and that is the American Dream.”
  • “The ability to obtain success regardless of prior background.”
  • “People from other countries believe it is the opportunity to be successful.”
  • “The dream of a land in which life should be better, richer, and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement.”
  • “To foreigners, the American Dream was the idea that America would bring them better jobs and more stability in their life.”

Many students mentioned the idea of hard work in their responses:

  • “Everyone can achieve wealth and happiness through hard work.”
  • “No matter your beginnings, you can achieve success if you work hard enough. This dream is based on how hard you work and that if you work hard you will be able to climb the hierarchy of success, regardless of how much money or assets you started off with.”
  • “It is the dream that no matter your position, you can always climb the ladder of wealth and success.”
  • “Bettering your life with hard work.”
  • “Measured by the amount of time and effort that you put into your studies, job, relationships, and careers.”
  • “The combination of the highest level of education available and hard work makes this possible. With this philosophy, anything becomes possible and can be achieved.”

group of young adults outside looking at a sunset

A few responses were of the opinion that the American Dream is not available to all people equally:

  • “It may be difficult for some, but the opportunity is there.”
  • “Most of the time, it is fictional for minorities.”
  • “If you are born into poverty, then the American Dream is not a reality. It really only exists for people who have some money to begin with.”

Then there were a variety of responses that deviated at least a little from the traditional definition. They seemed more modern or evolved. These responses were especially encouraging, as they mention attributes like happiness, goals, doing what you want, and following your dreams:

  • “Where anything is possible, and you are able to pursue your passions and interests and be successful.”
  • “The American Dream is the ability to do whatever you want with your life without worry of what others do.”
  • “Being passionate and in love with the career choice I have made.”
  • “Having the opportunity to succeed in whichever way you are aiming for.”
  • “I can strive to be an accountant, or I can strive to be the greatest hula-hooper the world has ever seen.”
  • “The idea of being able to pursue your dreams freely.”
  • “The American Dream is being happy for yourself.”
  • “The American Dream is to do whatever it is you want.”
  • “It is the dream of living happily and with good friendships and a good family base.”
  • “The American Dream is to be rich and happy and beautiful.”

And here’s my favorite response. I think it summed up a lot of what was previously said and adds in the idea of entrepreneurship:

“The American Dream is such a broad term, based around perspective. Some people say it is everything they dreamed of because they escaped poverty or homelessness or political ruin in their homeland. Others say it is finding a job and settling down and living a good life. My opinion is that it is something that other countries don’t really have: being an entrepreneur. Lots of Americans start a new business and make millions because of their curiosity and their innovation, and this is what propels others to move here: the ability to start something new and be different. I aim to follow this, as I want to make a name for myself and become successful.”

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Key Insights From the American Dream Survey

So, what can we take away from the answers of 100 17-year-olds?

The first takeaway is that the definition of the American Dream is still basically the same as it was for Baby Boomers, Gen X-ers, and Millennials. Second, the future is in good hands, as these young students equate things like hard work, drive, and education with success. And third, Gen Z is not aware that there are alternatives to the American Dream that still allow them to reach their goals—possibly even faster.

Other people’s definition of the American Dream would probably be similar in some ways and different in others. The reason I included these answers is so we can first realize there is no right way to live our life and no wrong way to define the American Dream.

If you want to live the version of the American Dream as your parents’ generation defined it, that is OK. If you have a different idea of happiness or fulfillment and choose to follow a less traditional path, that is OK, too. There are no mistakes in life, because all of our choices teach us and prepare us for future endeavors.

In the next post of this series, I will analyze the 10 steps of the American Dream that were listed above. Are these steps still relevant and accurate? Or do they need to be questioned and tweaked?

But in the meantime, how would you answer the question: What is the American Dream?

Comment below!

Dan is a high school Business/Marketing teacher, real estate investor, and personal finance advocate in Denver, Colorado. He and his wife have a variety of real estate investments including multifa...
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    Michael Steven Harris
    Replied 6 months ago
    I know this will sound silly but my dream is to work hard at a career while living on a small fraction of my income and find unique and interesting ways of investing my money. In order to achieve this I choose a highly leveraged life. Working both smarter and harder. For me I hope to die wishing I spent more time at the office. Now to explain why I think this way I lived on disability throughout my 20s. I know what a fixed income no responsibility life is like. It is not something I want... I've seen retirement destroy my parents despite having good finances. So I guess I'm a little different.
    Dan Sheeks Rental Property Investor from Denver, CO
    Replied 5 months ago
    Hi Michael. Thanks for the comment. I don't think your dream sounds silly at all. I wish to do the same thing. When I no longer have to work anymore, I believe I will continue to do so to keep myself busy and sharp.
    Rob Cook Real Estate Entrepreneur & Coach from Powell, Wyoming
    Replied 5 months ago
    Outstanding article and series, Dan! I will be looking forward to the next installment! This is of huge importance to us all. Secondly, I am JAZZED and amazed that there is such a thing as a High School teacher/Subject/course in "Business/Marketing teacher." I am envious, being age 60!
    Dan Sheeks Rental Property Investor from Denver, CO
    Replied 5 months ago
    Hi Rob. Thanks for the comment. Part 2 should be coming out this week. Keep an eye out! And, I agree, Business and Marketing classes in high school is great stuff! When I was in high school, we had keyboarding and Accounting and that was it. Now there are many other options, especially in the larger schools.
    Eric Carr Real Estate Broker from Los Angeles, CA
    Replied 5 months ago
    I see teaching opportunity for the kids who think minorities and starting from poverty have no chance. That belief will lock them in. We all have the opportunity to take where we've started and make our own story.
    Dan Sheeks Rental Property Investor from Denver, CO
    Replied 5 months ago
    Hey Eric. I agree with your comment 100%!
    Brad Shepherd Syndicator from Austin, TX
    Replied 5 months ago
    Fantastic post! Interestingly, I never thought of the American dream as a the path of college, job, retirement after getting old. I always associated it with entrepreneurship, that in America, everyone has the ability to determine their own fate. The college, worker, retire old crowd choosing the "what might have been path," and the go getters choosing to capture the American dream. I love the stories about first generation Americans building businesses and succeeding at what they're good at...whether it's tech, or landscaping or cleaning companies. The American dream goes beyond coming home to an ok house and watching TV at night. It's about succeeding at something you care about.
    Dan Sheeks Rental Property Investor from Denver, CO
    Replied 5 months ago
    Hey Brad. Great take on the American Dream! I think most people somehow combine the two pathways in their minds. But I like your version the better than the one where we all work till we're 65!
    Peter John K from Vail, Arizona
    Replied 5 months ago
    The American dream is whatever you want it to be and has never been about the path to success just that success is attainable for everyone. It goes way back to “a chicken in every pot” and in those times very few people went to college. "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." We are all individuals and should have our own dream like we have our own strengths and weaknesses. Happy 9-5 workers aren’t complaining loudly or bragging on the Internet because they are to busy being happy after having achieved the American dream :) There is a difference in being happy and having cool shiny new things to show off on Instagram.
    Dan Sheeks Rental Property Investor from Denver, CO
    Replied 5 months ago
    Great stuff, Peter! Thanks for sharing your insight.
    Kevin Moules Rental Property Investor from Turlock, CA
    Replied 5 months ago
    Thank you for starting this series Dan! I am sooo looking forward to the knowledge you will impart on us through these posts. I am a first generation American and my American Dream looks much different than the dream of my immigrant parents. Each person has a chance to make up their own dream here. That's why I always say no matter how crazy this country gets there is no where else I would want to live! I know a lot of immigrants and given the chance to go back to their homelands they would choose to stay here every time. I plan on sharing your series with my FB followers as a start to my topic about money. Thank you!!
    Dan Sheeks Rental Property Investor from Denver, CO
    Replied 5 months ago
    Hey Kevin. Thanks for your comment! I agree that even when things are crazy in this country, it's still the best place to be! We are blessed and very lucky to be here. Thanks for sharing the posts on your FB, too. The 3rd article in the series should come out later this week.
    Steve Hiltabiddle Lender from Eastern Pennysylvania
    Replied 5 months ago
    Hey Dan, Looking forward to the next articles. While I've done quite well as a result of following the 'standard path' I'm now itching to do something new. Like many things, perhaps all things we humans do, the mental aspect is of utmost importance. I'm finding in order to be an entrepreneur, one has to think like an entrepreneur (Thanks Robert Kiyosaki). One who has followed the college/education/save for the future and work for someone else path for 30+ years, this is new territory for me. For the sake of the next generation, I think we need to be cognizant of what beliefs we instill in their minds of what is possible and available to them. Fortunately, from your student's responses, there are some who appear to have a head start.
    Dan Sheeks Rental Property Investor from Denver, CO
    Replied 5 months ago
    Hi Steve. Thanks for your comment. I would say that there is nothing inherently "wrong" with the traditional path of the American Dream where one works for 40+ years. It's not a bad life by any means. It's just that everyone should know that there are other options out there that, in my opinion, are even better! Life is good! :-)
    Glen E from Savannah, Georgia
    Replied 5 months ago
    RE: What is the American dream? - I think the American dream has changed over time. Many immigrants in the 16th to 19th centuries came to america to escape political or religious persecution in the countries they came from. Just to raise their families without fear of persecution was their American dream. Then as America developed, people wanted more economic prosperity. Many people in cities worked long hours doing some type of factory work. Or in rural areas, and to use my mom's dad & other ancestors as examples, they were mostly farmers who worked from sunrise to sunset just to stay fed in a small shack of a house. They mostly had to walk, or occasionally use a horse-drawn buggy, to get from place to place. Fast forward 100 years and a couple of generations, I have had mostly computer programming jobs which were much more interesting to me than farming, with shorter hours too. I'm able to do what I want after work hours because I'm not exhausted after days of hard manual labor. I have taken vacations in cars & planes and seen sights all over America. BTW, I also retired last year at age 55. I'm pretty happy with the opportunities I've had in America.