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The American Dream ... It's NOT Working

The term was coined by writer and historian James Truslow Adams in his best-selling 1931 book Epic of America. He described it as "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."


While the term was created in 1931, it really did not take hold in American until the 1950’s. Raise your hand if you’ve ever seen Leave it to Beaver. A classic 1950s–60s sitcom about the comings and goings of an upper-middle class family, the Cleavers represented the successful life in America:

  • I don’t know what Ward Cleaver did but he went to work in a suit – so it appears to be a position where he had had the “right” education and training which in turn lead to the “right” career.

  • And he did quite well in that career. They had the material trappings that came with success – the home, car, and lots of “stuff”. Financial success with its trappings / “stuff” were evidence of his/their success.

  • The family appeared to well thought of within the community and as such status within the community / reputation became important.

  • They were a beautiful family. He picked a good looking wife and together they produced Wally and the Beaver (Theodore) … good looking young men … a group of nice people who liked each other and others. Relationships and appearance became important.

This sitcom only aired for 6 seasons from October 1957 to June 1963, each season had over 30 episodes. That’s over 180 episodes, 180 episodes that I am told are still available on reruns today. 180 episodes that impacted a lot of people both then and … apparently now.

I am not saying that I feel that the show was responsible for establishing the foundation for the American definition of success. I do think that its popularity which is described as the ‘most beloved American sitcom’, was and is due to the fact that it emulated / described how people saw and still, for a lot of people, see success.

Success had become defined as:

  • Get a good education – so you can get the job/career.

  • Get the “right” job/career – to you can have financial success.

  • Be financially successful – so you can have the “stuff” – and achieve a status in your profession and community.

  • Marry well and create a family.

And all of these accomplishments will lead to a “wonderful life”.


And while the components that make up the definition of success while fundamentally staying the same, have evolved over time and each generation has created their own image of the wonderful life, the one constant that has been that each generation has sought to outdo the previous generation.

TRADITIONALISTS (1927 to 1945)

The dream: The self-made man The mantra: “Pull yourself up by the bootstraps!” Icons/pop culture:

  • John D. Rockefeller

  • Henry Ford

  • Walt Disney

  • Jay Gatsby (fictional, yes, but iconic nonetheless)

  • Social Security Act

Traditionalists gave life to the self-made man, one who came from humble beginnings, worked his tail off, and defied all odds to become an icon of success.

BOOMERS (1946 to 1964)

The dream: The white picket fence The mantra: “Keeping up with the Joneses” Icons/pop culture:

  • The Cleaver Family

  • Don Draper (a modern take on the embodiment of the Boomer "dream")

  • The Kennedys

  • Muscle cars

The Boomer generation iconized how many still imagine the American Dream today. Lest we forget, Boomers are a massive group of 80 million. Soldiers returned from World War II, babies were boomed, and families moved outside city centers to raise their flock, resulting in suburbia and the middle class. The economy stabilized, consumer credit became the “in” way to purchase, and new technologies were just too good to pass up. Having grown up competing for everything from desks at school to gasoline to jobs, it was only natural that Boomers’ competitiveness would carry over into their standard of living as well. The idyllic life now consisted of ample space to raise a family (a house, yard, garage, and maybe a summer getaway cabin), a luxury car to commute to one’s job (and maybe a few more just for show), and things to fill space and show status. In 1952, four million Americans owned TVs. By 1960, that number was 50 million. For Boomers, the American Dream meant never having to want for anything and having the best of everything.

XERS (1965 to 1980)

The dream: The corner office The mantra: “Success is the best revenge” Icons/pop culture:

  • Yuppies

  • Gordon Gecko/ Wall Street

  • Scarface (not in a “let’s resort to crime” kind of way, but in a “this man didn’t achieve the American dream traditionally” kind of way)

  • Pretty Woman

  • Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

  • Springsteen’s “Born in the USA”

We often say that Baby Boomers redefine everything they touch. That is absolutely true. When it comes to ideals of success, however, Xers bucked the system and completely flipped the American Dream on its head. This was the first generation told it would be worse off than its parents, and with its relatively small population, Xers were often overlooked, omitted, and outcast. This resilient generation didn’t let that get them down, and as Frank Sinatra once said, “The best revenge is success.” Xers showed everyone they weren’t just skateboarding slackers. In the workforce, they’ve strived tirelessly to get the corner office, and even today Xers are crushing negative stereotypes of their generation. Xers are rated by their Boomer and Millennial cohorts to be best at generating revenue and building teams and considered least likely to be “difficult to work with” or “cynical and condescending,” according to Bloomberg.

What is so interesting about Xers’ American Dream, however, is that in the ‘80s, “the American Dream began to take on hyperbolic connotations, to be conflated with extreme success,” according to Vanity Fair.

Where Boomers enjoyed all the outward trappings of success, Xers are in it to win it—and they want it all. The corner office and time with the family.

MILLENNIALS (1981 to 1996)

The dream: Live for the journey, not the destination The mantra: “You can do anything you put your mind to”, “Live as if you’ll die tomorrow” Icons/pop culture:

  • The Social Network/ Mark Zuckerberg

  • Slumdog Millionaire

  • Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen

  • Oprah

  • Startup culture

  • Kickstarter

  • Jared Leto (This one may take some explaining. Leto is the frontman for the band 30 Seconds to Mars, an award-winning actor known for his transgender role in Dallas Buyers Club, founder of the digital marketing company The Hive, and a devout philanthropist. He has literally done it all.)

With optimistic Boomer parents supporting this generation’s every endeavor, it should come as no surprise that Millennials believe they can do it all. But, plot twist! The end goal isn’t the final destination. It’s not even worth the climb unless you have a collection of fun and sordid memories about how you got there—as well as photographic evidence to prove it. As the kids say these days, “Pics or it didn’t happen!” When all is said and done, having stories about running with the bulls in Pamplona, opening a restaurant, and meeting your significant other halfway across the world are this generation’s take on the American Dream. The house, the kids, the steady job—all well and good in their own time, but for Millennials, the American dream is in the here and now, and they are making the most of it.

EDGERS (1996 to 2010)

The dream: Having and being enough The mantra: “Success isn’t given, it’s earned” Icons/pop culture:

  • Laverne Cox

  • Taylor Swift

  • Rosanna Pansino

  • Zoella

  • Barack Obama

  • Malala Yousefzi

  • YouTube celebrities

The generation after Millennials continues to baffle generational researchers. Though they certainly share certain traits with Millennials, they seem to share even more with—get this—Traditionalists. Growing up with realistic Gen X parents, Edgers are being taught to live within their means and work hard for achievable dreams. This generation is reviving the pursuit of happiness and the creation of a better life for all, but they’re striving for this American Dream in completely new ways. Living in a country that acknowledges and accepts gay marriage and transgender people, founding a tech startup, owning a home—these are Edgers’ ideals of the American Dream.


But with 41.5% of the American population (that’s 138,213,656 people … yes 138 million) suffering from anxiety and depression; and 11% of the American population (36,634,944 people … yes, 36 million) attempting to kill themselves each year … this American Dream is NOT the reality for a whole lot of us.


I think I know “why”. But I would be curious to see what you think.

Why do you think that the American Dream is not working for a large segment of our fellow countrymen and women?

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