What is the New American Dream?

Written By Ryan Stancil

Posted June 10, 2014

A generation or two ago, if you asked someone what the “American Dream” was, they might have given you the stock answer of a home in the suburbs, a white picket fence, two cars, and some kids.

Ask that question today, and you might get a variety of answers, but there’s a good chance they won’t come close to resembling the answers of old.

The idea behind what it means to “make it” in America is changing, and there are a lot of different reasons why it’s happening.

Shrinking Suburbs, Expanding Cities, and the Successful American

Just before the recession began, it wasn’t too uncommon to hear about people settling down and moving away from major metropolitan areas to nearby suburbs for a variety of reasons: better schools, quieter neighborhoods, less traffic, and lower costs of living, in many cases.

Now, it seems like more people flee the suburbs in favor of city living.

This shift is being led by millennials, those born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s, who have come of age in the worst economy since the great depression.

And even though recent college graduates and young adults who are just starting out in life play a large part in this trend reversal, evidence shows that there are plenty of baby boomers who are also going against convention.

Sure, some are doing it out of their own desire, but many are following this trend because they have no other choice.

Americans are collectively worried about money, and they have good reason to be with issues like rising student debt, stagnant wages, and vanishing retirement options.

Think about that and the shift toward city living suddenly starts to make a little more sense.

Urban centers ideally offer walkability and public transportation, so there is little reason to deal with the expense of owning and maintaining a car.

Likewise, depending on where you live, monthly rent can be cheaper than a mortgage.

This is creating a greater demand for multi-family building construction, leaving large homes in the suburbs vacant for months or years at a time, and redefining what it means to be successful in America.

To many young people, being successful means living a life free from debt. For older Americans, happiness is simply being able to retire instead of having to work literally to death. A growing number for either demographic seems to see accomplishments like owning a car or a home as an obstacle to that success.

It says a lot about how far we’ve regressed in the past few years when making it in America means simply being able to survive with as few worries as possible.

The desire for fortune has given way to the desire for stability and what it means to be American is fundamentally going to change because of it.

A Changing Viewpoint

For decades, American prosperity has been linked to our consumer economy, which stands on a foundation of milestones like buying a house or car. If this trend of suburban exodus continues, that foundation is going crumble.

The signs point to things getting worse before they get better, partly because of a weak housing market, and that could drive the suburbs as we know them that much closer to extinction. If that longstanding cornerstone of American identity goes away, there’s no denying that it will further sentiments of pessimism among the American people whether they consciously realize it or not.

As long as this country’s economic conditions remain on their current course, the cynicism that many feel won’t be going away. People will adapt, as they always do, but the American dream of being prosperous and well-off like past generations may be something that’s resigned to the history books.

Until next time,

Ryan Stancil