The American Dream

It is only appropriate to revisit the status of the American Dream on Martin Luther King Jr. day. There is some surprisingly good market research on this subject. I want to present top line findings from a couple studies. From my vantage point, how Americans feel about the American Dream is one reasonable look at the authenticity of Brand America’s promise. I am fascinated by the work being done in this area.


Northwestern Mutual’s American Reality Study 2009

This was an online market research study conducted for Northwestern Mutual by the research firm Matthew Greenwald & Associates. The respondents were 1,000 Americans age 25 or older. The results of the study suggest most Americans still believe the American Dream is achievable. Here are some highlights of the study results that I found particularly interesting.

  • Four in five Americans surveyed (82%) agree at least somewhat that people can accomplish anything they put their minds to.
  • Nearly six in ten (58%) at least somewhat agree that the “American Dream” is still attainable for most Americans.
  • Alarmingly, only 27% somewhat to strongly agreed, “The United States is generally headed in the right direction”.
  • The majority of respondents define success as: spending quality time with family (88%), having a good relationship with your spouse or partner (86%), being healthy (81%), and having a good work/life balance (80%).
  • Two-thirds of respondents (65%) agree with the idea that someday they will get to where they want to be in life.

The Summary Report has a lot of data beyond what I have shared and I think it is worth the time to review it in its entirety. My hope is that Northwestern Mutual decides to sponsor an annual execution of the study so we can track changes in perception over time. It would be a great longitudinal data set to help evaluate the on-going authenticity of the Brand America Promise.

American Dream Composite Index

I highlighted this work previously in my Odds and Ends post. This is some fascinating research being conducted by the Center for the Study of the American Dream at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio. The Center’s focus is to study the history of the American Dream, identify emerging trends and predict meaningful shifts on how the definition is changing. The second annual State of the American Dream Survey was conducted by Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz and Associates (FM3). The respondents were 1,003 adults age 18 or older. Here are some interesting highlights from the Center’s 2011 study results.

Bad News:

  • 65% of Americans believe that America is in decline, only 39% believe America “represents the future”.
  • 52% of respondents named China as the nation the world now looks to in terms of the future.
  • 63% believe the Chinese economy is more powerful than the US economy.

Good News:

  • 63% of Americans say they are “extremely” or “fairly” confident that they have already reached or will reach the American Dream in their lifetime.
  • The four most prominent elements of the American Dream are “a good life for my family”, “opportunity”, “freedom” and “financial security”.
  • 60% of Americans believe immigration is important to keeping the American Dream alive.

I have reached out to the professors in the Center to do an interview. That work is in process, and I hope it will provide some important insights into their work and the future direction of the study.


The underlying premise of the Strengthening Brand America Project is there is room for our nation to improve the authenticity of the Brand America Promise. The hypothesis is that by looking at our nation through the lens of branding we will identify ways to become more authentic and as a result more competitive. Better delivery of the Promise at the local level will, in aggregate, lead to a Strengthened Brand America.

The studies above only reinforce my personal conviction to both the need for change and the opportunity of the Strengthening Brand America Project to help catalyze that change. But, as a grassroots solution, nothing happens without your active involvement. My feeling is that, while acknowledging and respecting the impact of outside constraints, the future for Brand America is whatever we choose to envision it to be. The probability of achieving that vision is a function of enrolling, energizing and enabling Americans to pursue it. I hope you decide to be an ambassador for Strengthening Brand America.

What are Your Thoughts?

Does any of the above market research data strike you as surprising? Do either (or both) of the studies feel like a good way to measure the authenticity of Brand America’s Promise? What role can the economic development profession play in helping improve the realization of the American Dream for even more citizens? How can we get even more colleagues to be part of the Strengthening Brand America Project so we can make even more progress faster?

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