The Changing America Dream – Back to the Future

Key to a strong Brand America is an authentic and compelling promise. The promise of Brand America is articulated on July 4, 1776 in our Declaration of Independence.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

This promise has been viewed by the world as highly:

  • Relevant – Immigration to the USA continues to grow.
  • Competitive – 47% of the world’s immigrants choose to come to the USA.
  • Authentic – Despite the recent economic crisis, Americans continue to believe so.

Recent articles have challenged the authenticity of Brand America’s promise (aka the American Dream), and some have challenged its relevance, competitiveness and/or authenticity.

The National League of Cities Report indicates Americans remain optimistic, but many are being left behind.

Ron Paul claims the American Dream needs to be renewed. “Our challenge is to create an America that lives up to the principles and ideals of our Founding Fathers.”

Peggy Noonan claims the American Dream is being scaled down, and “There will be fewer facelifts and browlifts, less Botox, less dyed hair among both men and women.”

The NY Times has declared the American Dream dead.

I think the flaw in the logic of those who challenge Brand America’s promise is they equate “the pursuit of happiness” with the ability to achieve personal wealth.  The inference is if you are not wealthy, you cannot be happy.

Research doesn’t fully support the critic’s logic. In fact, research indicates happiness is a much more complex concept that involves pleasure (positive sensory experience), engagement (involvement with one’s family, work, social network and hobbies), and meaning (using personal strengths to serve some larger end). Research, like the study conducted by two professors at Princeton University (one a Nobel laureate), indicates the link between wealth and happiness is “greatly exaggerated and mostly an illusion”.

Is Brand America’s Promise really about having cosmetic surgery and buying a 52” flat screen television? Is that what the nation’s forefathers envisioned? Is that truly why millions of immigrants each year choose to become American citizens?

People around the world respond to Brand America’s promise because they want the opportunity of self-determination. They desire the chance to live their lives in freedom and pursue personal happiness.

I recently ran a LinkedIn survey (n=76) to get a dipstick assessment on the authenticity of Brand America’s promise. Going in, I expected the results to be negative. Instead, I found the majority of respondents believe Brand America’s promise is “somewhat to highly authentic”. There was an interesting difference in response by age. Younger responders were a bit more optimistic than older. I would hypothesize the difference may be related to the economic crisis ruining havoc on older responder’s retirement plans which would in turn compromise their perceived ability to pursue self-determination and personal happiness.

Brand America's Promise Survey Response - Total Respondents

Brand America's Promise Survey Response - Respondents by Age

An important perspective is that every generation of Americans measures Brand America’s promise through their own eyes. And, post the global economic crisis, the interpretation of Brand America’s promise is changing. And, in my opinion, it is being interpreted in a manner closer to the intent of our forefathers. It is back to the future all over again.

Northwest Mutual Insurance completed a national study entitled “The American Dream”. The conclusion of their study was that “Americans are optimistic despite the economic turmoil”, and that “The America dream has been redefined”.  They found money is a means to an end, and not the goal. Mathew Greenwald, President and Chief Executive Officer of Mathew Greenwald & Associates stated “Financial security as a catalyst to the things they really want in life – to be able to spend quality time with their families; to achieve a better work/life balance; and to be the kind of parent, spouse, and partner they aspire to be”. I think he has the right of it.

As we look forward to 2011, it will be important to recalibrate our personal internal compass to the true north of Brand America’s promise. It isn’t all about wealth accumulation. It is about leading a healthy life, being free to determine our individual path, and the opportunity to pursue the happiness that comes from family, friends and the pursuit of leaving a positive, personal mark on the lives of others.

I personally believe Brand America’s promise is relevant, competitive and authentic; I also believe it is an aspiration worth working for, and is our responsibility to do so. If you get a moment, look back at 2010 and recalibrate the meaning of Brand America’s promise in your own mind. And then, recommit to helping ensure it remains authentic in 2011 and beyond.

Please leave a comment and share your perspective. By sharing, you help everybody get a better learning experience.

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Have a wonderful new year.

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12 Comments so far

  1. Z. Joe Kulenovic

    December 27, 2010

    Well said, Ed. People are at last redefining “the pursuit of happiness” to mean whatever their individual circumstances indicate. It is no longer about uniformity – a McMansion with a two-car garage in suburbia (or the exurbs), or getting plastic surgery, but instead perhaps travel to exotic places or experiencing various things that enrich one’s life. The old Shakesperian line about money being a good servant but a poor master comes to mind… Definitely something to ponder this holiday season, as the economic transformation and global realignment continue.

  2. Randall Witte

    December 27, 2010

    Based on the recent financial issues, I can see why there were as many “no longer authentic” responses, especially by older Americans who likely feel sold out by any number of players in the system.

    BUT it is very heartening to see that MOST of the respondents still feel that things are generally better HERE than just about ANYWHERE ELSE.

    I believe in “the promise” but also feel that WE must make every effort to be sure that the promise is kept for all who are here now and for those who will be coming after us.

  3. Tyler D. Schleich

    December 28, 2010

    Nice Article Ed, I think it would also be interesting to see how the participants in the survery responded based on their job position/title as well. Im not sure if there is a correlation but I would suspect people with those 52″ TV’s would be more likely to answer the Dream is alive and well as opposed to a clerk. Keep up the good work.

  4. Cecilia Harry

    December 30, 2010

    This past year, my studies encouraged me to take a closer look at the reality of the American Dream (AD), and I’ve come to the conclusion that the AD is a myth or at least should be called something else. By calling it the AD, it implies that all Americans have the ability/opportunity to achieve it, and that simply isn’t true. In capitalism, there are winners and losers, and the losers have the deck so dramatically stacked against them that the odds of achieving that ideal security and success are very small. (And probably the saddest part of this is that those with the smallest chance of achieving the AD are the ones who believe the most in its existence.) Our system is designed in a way that only a certain amount of people are to advance at the expense of the poor and marginalized. If you have the resources and the right things happen to you from birth, sure, go get that AD, but if you are born in the wrong place at the wrong time to the wrong parents, good luck to you. The current reality saddens me, and I do believe it does not have to be this way.

  5. Cosimo A. Quarta

    January 1, 2011

    You can get if you really want!

    It ‘s the title of a Jamaican 60s song, but expresses the idea of the American dream in the world, even today.

  6. Steve Harding

    January 1, 2011

    Your general thesis and comments regarding the “American Dream” are quite interesting. They also underscore the very essence of human nature and in particular, the historic perspective of Americans themselves. We can all do a little research and find numerous corollaries. Whether one quotes Aristotle, Thomas Hobbes, John Stewart Mill, Dwight Waldo Emerson or a litany of other brilliant minds past and present, one may conclude that optimism is more dependent upon one’s ability to pursue one’s dreams rather than attaining the dream itself. Alexis de Tocqueville stated:
    “It is a strange thing to see with what sort of feverish ardor Americans pursue well-being and how they show themselves constantly tormented by a vague fear of not having chosen the shortest route that can lead to it.”

  7. Steve Melnick

    January 2, 2011

    Time and time again, it has been demonstrated that when our society becomes unfettered by regulation, we take advantage of each other for our own benefit and to the detriment of others. Therefore those who espouse less government tend to be those who have attained their version of the AD.

  8. Steve Harding

    January 2, 2011

    Your general thesis and comments regarding the “American Dream” are quite interesting. They also underscore the very essence of human nature and in particular, the historic perspective of Americans themselves. We can all do a little research and find numerous corollaries. Whether one quotes Aristotle, Thomas Hobbes, John Stewart Mill, Dwight Waldo Emerson or a litany of other brilliant minds past and present, one may conclude that optimism is more dependent upon one’s ability to pursue one’s dreams rather than attaining the dream itself. Alexis de Tocqueville stated:
    “It is a strange thing to see with what sort of feverish ardor Americans pursue well-being and how they show themselves constantly tormented by a vague fear of not having chosen the shortest route that can lead to it.”

    I am sure this was covered in Economic Development 101 somewhere. Just Kidding.

  9. Lincoln Torcelli

    January 2, 2011

    Down here in sunny Argentina, and from a LATAM perspective I find American Dream is rebirthing.
    USA – as the Western world´s leader – is slowly but firmly stepping on, again, the path of progress and leadership.

    Year 2011 will show an increase of 1.5% in rate growth -compared to 2009- and so, the future is more challenging than ever. The National consensus will definitely foster production and consumption. The political system has rationally aligned to the consumer´s expectations and those of the private segment. High tech is the main driver of local investment, specially in infraestructure development.

    A nation that used to live in an endless war state since its inception- just visit the US Naval Academy – is more likely to recover from the financial bubble, and start leading the world as it did in the past century.

    So I truly believe, my good friends, that the American Dream is only shifting but still alive; because American people, across the centuries have focused on progress & growth; and this spirit still remains.

  10. Carlos Martinez, RPA

    January 4, 2011

    I think that the times have made the real meaning of the American Dream come forward because the pain from the recent economic melt down is being felt by so many. The Berney Madolf’s of the world and mother nature have also equalized the pain field. It is no longer just the middle class and poor that are suffering. However, as Americans, we are at our best when the you know what hits the fan. Having said that, for the last decade or so I’ve read quite a few articles about CEO’S, CFO’s, COO’s as well as other well to do’s coming to the realization that it’s not all about the money, power, physical things we acquire or where we can afford to go and what we can do. We have started to realize as a nation that family, friends and health are much more important. Corporate America needs to do more to care for it’s good employees for the true strength of any organization, big or small, is with it’s employees. They are the ones in the trenches every day and for the most part innovate positive change and forward mobility. This is being well pointed out by the new TV show “Undercover Boss”. In today’s and any future economic climate, doing things the same old way is no longer a feasible course of action. It’s not so difficult to be the best, you just have to be willing to be different.

  11. offshore bank account

    January 22, 2011

    Question How would you articulate Brand Americas promise?I believe there are three key words that best describe Americas brand promise inclusively better and freedom. Many made it so.Based upon the founding principles of our nation —where all men are created equal —these people were given a chance to be included in the American Dream. Iconic brands like Chevrolet Levis and the infamous Marlboro Man best depicted American dream of freedom.The American Promise can be best expressed as a place where all people belong When immigrants arrived by boat and saw our stunning Statue of Liberty on Ellis Island they must have said I belong here.2.

  12. […] promise that sets an expectation of an experience. A good brand is relevant, competitive and authentic. If […]

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