The American Dream Is Dead, and Good Riddance

It’s time to redefine what it means to be successful in America.


New analysis confirms what many already assumed to be true: a sizable number of Americans can no longer afford the American Dream. Inspired by the new book, Chasing the American Dream, USA Today calculated that subsidizing the American Dream costs approximately $130,000 annually, meaning the dream is only within reach for about 1 in 8 American families.

The shocking six-figure price tag generated international headlines. But instead of inspiring handwringing about how to make the American Dream more affordable, I hope these numbers show us something else: the American Dream as we know it is dead, and good riddance.

Perhaps nothing is more responsible for the lack of contentment plaguing some Americans today than the outdated notion of the American Dream that has been peddled to all of us for as long as we can remember. I’m referring to the version that usually involves some mention of a white picket fence.

As part of its calculation USA Today cited certain key benchmarks for achieving the American Dream, notably home ownership, educating two children, as well as owning a good car. But for many of us our American Dream doesn’t involve all of the above, and in some cases any of the above.

Adults living alone are currently one of the fastest growing demographics in America. Nearly a third of households now consist of one person, and the number of Americans living alone has doubled in the last fifty years. According to a piece in Fortune, this demographic wields notable spending power. Many of them can splurge regularly on things that traditional families sometimes cannot, such as theater tickets. Is it possible some of these people are killing time until they transition into a more traditional definition of the American Dream via marriage? Sure, but a lot of these so-called “singletons” are already living their own version of the dream.

Moreover, the number of childfree adults—including couples—is also on the rise. Despite the fact that anyone with common sense will tell you not everyone is meant to be a parent, and that some people are not cut out for marriage, that has not stopped marriage and parenthood from being central to the most common contemporary definition of the American Dream.

But even as more Americans are beginning to challenge these ideas, there is still very potent societal pressure on Americans to chase some version of a dream many may not even want, but have simply been told to pursue their whole lives.

Similarly, while USA Today writes, “Home ownership is central to the American dream,” I know of plenty of New Yorkers who might argue that a reasonable rent is. It’s also hard not to wonder if the mortgage meltdown would have happened if so many Americans had not bought into the idea that their American Dream would not be complete without buying a house, specifically a house they could not really afford.

When historian James Truslow Adams coined the phrase “The American Dream” in 1931, he called it “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.” He added, “It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”

But over the years this definition of the American Dream has been lost. Instead, when we talk about the American Dream, we often find ourselves talking about marriage, children, mortgage debt, student loan debt, stuff, more stuff, and even more stuff (to fill up the house you owe the mortgage debt on).

Thankfully, the tide appears to be turning back in favor of Adams’ definition of the American Dream. A 2011 study found “a sense of meaning” to be the most important factor for Millennials in defining a successful career, even though “meaning” is not the kind of thing that always helps with a mortgage. Perhaps now that the American Dream as we have long known it is now out of financial reach for an increasing number of Americans, more will take the time to reflect on what the American Dream means for them personally, and maybe for our country as a whole in the 21st century.