What Students Say About the American Dream

I was doing some online research into the American Dream to better understand how different demographics perceive it. I have done a reasonable amount of studying the Dream, but find it is always good to proactively seek diverse thoughts on the subject. My passion for continuing to learn about the American Dream stems from my involvement with the researchers at Xavier University who successfully created the first (and only to my knowledge) statistically valid definition of the American Dream. This work is fascinating and instructional. Unfortunately, their survey has been suspended because of lack of funding. I am hoping it is only temporarily suspended and a new financial underwriter will be found. Given the challenges our Nation is facing, keeping a current perspective on resident perception of achieving their American Dream seems like more than just a good idea.

In my online search I came across an article titled “What Students Are Saying About: The American Dream, Mindfulness in Schools and How to Define ‘Family’” published by The New York Times. I want to share some actual student quotes from the article and comment on them from the perspective of the Xavier University quantitative research. Overall, I think the article is worth the time to read in full.

Let me start with The New York Times statement “According to a recent survey, the definition of the American dream is changing — from the opportunity for material success and social mobility to the “freedom of choice in how to live” — and many believe that they are living it. Actually no, the definition of the American Dream is not changing. What is changing is Samuel Abrams’ (the article author) understanding of what the Dream is. Here is how he characterized the “big change”: “What our survey found about the American dream came as a surprise to me. When Americans were asked what makes the American dream a reality, they did not select as essential factors becoming wealthy, owning a home or having a successful career. Instead, 85 percent indicated that “to have freedom of choice in how to live” was essential to achieving the American dream. In addition, 83 percent indicated that “a good family life” was essential.” What Abrams actually found is the American Dream cannot be defined so simply as material prosperity. It never could. The American Dream is more complex than that. And yes, family plays a key role in many resident’s personal definition of the American Dream.

Let’s start with a general description of the American Dream based on statistically validated quantitative research. According to Xavier University, Jame Truslow Adams was pretty spot on in his description. “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.” In my 2014 Site Selection Magazine article I state “The dream of a freer and more fulfilled life is what all residents seek, and is embedded in the core promise of our nation. It is the reason people immigrate to America and the reason residents get out of bed each morning to tackle the myriad challenges they face on any given day.”

Xavier University researchers found the American Dream is actually comprised of 35 dimensions which include: a) economic factors such as home ownership, financial security, and job characteristics; b) personal well-being factors such as family and friends, leisure, and happiness; c) societal factors such as trust in government, justice, civic participation; d) diversity factors; and e) the physical environment. Consequently, the American Dream is more complex than Abrams starting notion that prosperity equals the American Dream. Hoefully you can see it is a much more holistic concept.

Now, let’s look at a few quotes from students.

[My father] He has created a successful practice and makes enough money to support my family everyday. That is the American Dream.” The student’s perception of the American Dream as hard work = prosperity is too narrow. He went on to say “I watched a man battle from one of the deepest holes imaginable in order to give his children the opportunity to have a better life than he did.” This is closer to what the American Dream actually is – the opportunity to live a freer and more fulfilled life. What is impressive is his father clearly understood he had to invest sweat equity to achieve the Dream. He was afforded the opportunity to success, not a guarantee of success.

“To achieve the American dream, you have to try to achieve what you want in life and want to achieve it, you can’t sit around and wait for things to happen to you, you have to make those things happen to you.” I loved this quote because the insight is so right. This student observed the choices her grandmother made to achieve her American Dream. I have no doubt this student will achieve her American Dream as well and that it won’t be exactly the same as her Grandmother’s.

“The American Dream does not exist in my eyes, it’s a concept used to motivate people in a volatile economy and favored society. It used to exist, though.” I was saddened by this quote because it felt so defeatist. The student went on to narrowly define her American Dream as social mobility, which based on the Xavier University research is too narrow a definition. She also shared the American Dream was alive when her Grandfather emigrated from Greece and he achieved it through “tremendous hard work and determination, something I believe our newer generations lack.” Again, a student’s observation that achieving the Dream is nota foregone conclusion. I am more optimistic that the current generation of residents can achieve their American Dream is they better understand what it really is and invest the seat equity to pursue it.

“As a woman, it might be harder for me to achieve the same American dream as a man.” I share this quote because it presupposes everybody has the same American Dream. The Xavier University research suggests the general definition of the Dream is actually a compilation of many individual dreams. Consequently, it is totally appropriate for two people (regardless of gender) to have unique personal definitions of the Dream. In my opinion what varies isn’t the 35 dimensions; but rather, the relative importance an individual places on any one of the dimensions. Net, it is perfectly okay for your Dream to be different than mine.

“Now that I am older and can understand what is going on in the world, I know that the idea of the “American Dream” is different for everyone.” This student “gets it”. The Dream is personal even though it can be described for each of us by the 35 dimensions. “I believe that whatever someone wants their “American Dream” to be, that’s what it is to them. Everyone does not need to have the same Dream.” Spot on! Your Dream will be based on the relative importance you place on each of the 35 dimensions. The key is to understand what it will take for you to successfully pursue achieving your version of the Dream. You can also expect your personal version of the American Dream to change over time as you gain life experience and your priorities shift.

Hopefully I have piqued your curiosity into learning more about the American Dream and Xavier University’s research into it. The more you understand what the American Dream is and isn’t, the more you will appreciate the true job of our elected officials is to better enable their constituents to achieve their American Dream. It is time both politicians and the Media understand what the American Dream is and view choices around public policy, infrastructure investment and capital attraction as enablers for (or hurdles to) achieving the American Dream.

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