This Thing Called the American Dream

NEW YORK – In 1968, gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson mused about “this Death of the American Dream thing.” But what was this thing called the American Dream? What made it uniquely American?


For some, the Dream was Americans’ belief that their economy was a cornucopia of goods sure to bring a standard of living unimaginable in other economies: the dream of unrivaled plenty and comfort. But, while America had a superior wage level in the 1700s, Britain nearly closed the wage gap with America by the 1880s, and Germany came almost as close by 1913. Germany and France caught up with America by the 1970s.

For some economists, the Dream was the hope of an improving standard of living: the dream of progress. The economist Raj Chetty has been gauging the improvement people have made over what their parents had. He found that in 1940, nearly all young Americans – 90% of them, to be precise – had a household income higher than their parents had when they were young. That high percentage largely reflects America’s rapid productivity growth, which boosted wage rates. Yet from 1890 to 1940, rapid productivity growth was normal in Britain, Germany, and France as well – as it was in the “30 Glorious Years” from 1945 to 1975. So if the Dream was progress, Europeans could have dreamed of progress, too.

For many others, the Dream referred to the hope of America’s deprived – stirred by Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Jr., John Rawls, and Richard Rorty – that their country would somehow end the injustice of pay so low that it isolates them from the life of the country: the dream of inclusion. Yet such a dream could not be unique to the poor and marginalized in America. Certainly Arabs and Roma in Europe have dreamed of being integrated into society.

For other scholars, such as Richard Reeves and Isabel Sawhill, the American Dream is about mobility more generally. It is a hope held by Americans, in the working and middle classes as well as the working poor, of being lifted to a higher rung on the socioeconomic ladder, not a rise of the ladder itself: the dream of a higher income or social station relative to the average. In fact, from the mid-nineteenth century well into the twentieth, structural shifts wrought by technological change and demographics in America’s market economy lifted many participants – while dropping others. Yet it is doubtful that this “musical chairs” was unique to Americans. From 1880 well into the 1920s, Germans and French saw their economies transformed by globalization; Britons had that experience even earlier.

What made the American Dream distinctive was neither the hope of winning the lottery nor of being buoyed by national market forces or public policy. It was the hope of achieving things, with all that that entails: drawing on one’s personal knowledge, trusting one’s intuition, venturing into the unknown. It reflected the deep need of these Americans to have the experience of succeeding at something: a craftsman’s gratification at seeing his mastery result in better work, or a merchant’s satisfaction at seeing “his ship come in.” It was success that mattered, not relative success (would anyone want to be the sole achiever?). And the process may have mattered more than the success.

There is abundant evidence of this goal, as Americans worked it into their books and plays. Mark Twain, though a dark writer, appreciated the quest for success of his young subjects. At the end of his 1885 classic, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Finn aims to “light out for the Territory ahead of the rest...” Hollywood writers found other words for it. In the film Little Caesar (1931) Rico says, “Money’s okay, but it ain’t everything. Be somebody….Have your own way or nothing.” In A Star is Born (1937), the aspiring singer Esther Blodgett exclaims that “I’m going out and have a real life! I’m gonna be somebody!” And in On the Waterfront (1954), Terry Malloy laments to his brother Charley “I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody...”

Of course, dreaming of success could not have been widespread – a national phenomenon – had working Americans not had an economy that gave participants the freedom to be enterprising: to try new ways and conceive new things. And dreams of success could not have become as widespread as they did had Americans not perceived that they could succeed regardless of their national origin and their social status.

Observing that enterprise, exploration, and creation could be engaging, even engrossing, and deeply gratifying, Americans came to view working in businesses, from rural areas to cities, as a path to the Good Life. And that life’s rewards were not just money. To suppose that money was their focus – even in their dreams – is to miss what was distinctive in American life.

From the early nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth, Americans were proving the wisdom of philosophers from Montaigne and Voltaire to Hegel and –a hit in America – Nietzsche: that the good life is about acting on the world and making “your garden grow,” not padding your bank account.

Edmund Phelps, the 2006 Nobel Laureate in Economics and author of Mass Flourishing, is Director of the Center on Capitalism and Society at Columbia University.

By Edmund Phelps

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