The “American Dream” has never been what you’d call a personal goal for me. Actually, I’ve never been really sure what it is, exactly. Certainly, the definition has changed over the years. If I’m not mistaken, the phrase originated in the early 1930’s. At that time, however, it simply symbolized the idea of equal opportunity for anyone willing to work hard and follow the rules. It was, in other words, more of an ideal than a specific set of goals. It embodied the idea that in America, unlike other countries, there were no class boundaries, no barriers to advancement based solely on economic or social status. It helped, of course, if you were white.
In the 1950’s, the Dream began to evolve into goals that were a little more concrete. As the postwar economy began to grow and with it, purchasing power, people wanted more. Still, the “goals” were relatively modest. A small house. A car. And maybe, if things went really well, a TV. But you had to work (and save) for these things.
I grew up in those years. I remember when my parents bought a small ranch – style house in a suburb of Rochester in 1955 (my mother still lives there). It cost something like $13,000. And when my father bought a slightly used station wagon a year later, it felt like we were rich. Then came the black and white TV. Talk about living in the lap of luxury. What more could anyone want? I had to share a bedroom with my two brothers, but so what? Life was good.
Looking back, it seems to me that the “Dream” started to go to hell in the 80’s. Americans went from just wanting a bigger piece of the pie to demanding the whole pie. And why wait for it? Why not get it all today? Credit was easy to get (remember, it was during the Reagan administration that deregulation really started). Housing prices took off. Between 1980 and 2007, median home prices nearly quadrupled. A home became a major investment. Why get a 3 bedroom ranch when you can have a McMansion? With 2 or 3 cars in the driveway and a large pool in the back. Not to mention the yearly vacation in Hawaii. So what if you build up some credit card debt? The house will just keep increasing in value – there will always be equity.
Well, so much for the “Dream”. Greed killed it. Greedy bankers, greedy CEO’s, greedy oil companies, greedy retailers, and yes, greedy consumers (you and I): we all played a part.
I suspect, though, that it will be reborn. I also suspect that it will be reborn in a more modest form, maybe not as modest as the one my parents pursued, but a good deal less voracious than the most recent version. I hope so. But my gut tells me that it won’t last – as soon as the money starts to flow again, the old appetites will kick in and we’ll be off to the races once more. As a species, I’m beginning to think we’re not very bright……..