What Is the American Dream, Anyway?

Despite what some people think, it isn't to live a perfect life.

The so-called "American Dream" has become a sort of mystical ideal in recent years. Its meaning has been overinflated, and consequently it seems less attainable. Now, some believe the American Dream is never having to worry about money. Others think it's having a job you wake up and love to go to each day. An article today in the New York Times claims it's both. In fact, the American Dream is neither.

The article acts as a sort of human interest story of a family. One son graduated college in 2008. Like so many young adults his age, he is having trouble finding a job. The Times ultimately generalizes the point that young Americans who are a part of this generation may never attain the American dream. The Times explains his struggle:

The daily routine seldom varied. Mr. Nicholson, 24, a graduate of Colgate University, winner of a dean's award for academic excellence, spent his mornings searching corporate Web sites for suitable job openings. When he found one, he mailed off a résumé and cover letter -- four or five a week, week after week.

Over the last five months, only one job materialized. After several interviews, the Hanover Insurance Group in nearby Worcester offered to hire him as an associate claims adjuster, at $40,000 a year. But even before the formal offer, Mr. Nicholson had decided not to take the job.

Rather than waste early years in dead-end work, he reasoned, he would hold out for a corporate position that would draw on his college training and put him, as he sees it, on the bottom rungs of a career ladder.

Wait. You mean he found a job with the national underemployment rate at 16.5%, with no professional work experience, that paid $40,000 per year, and didn't take it because it wasn't exactly what he wanted? There must be some confusion here about the American Dream. The idea that every 24-year old lands their dream job straight out of college isn't the American Dream: it's a fantasy.

Anyone who grew up throughout the 20th Century could attest that the American dream isn't about always getting precisely what you want. It's about taking what life hands you, working extremely hard, and having the ability to live a relatively satisfying life. Millions immigrated to the U.S. over the years seeking an opportunity to succeed, not to be provided precisely the opportunity they wanted.

Look back at those Americans of past generations who lived the American Dream. Did the coal miner who had a brutal job but decent wages that allowed him to provide for his family live the American Dream? How about the worker who drove railroad spikes into the ground under the hot sun all day? What about the factory employee who sat on a monotonous assembly line for hours on end? They all attained the American dream, because they had an opportunity to work, raise a family, earn enough money to live relatively well, and find some joy in life. They may have preferred to be a professional golfer, a famous novelist, or high-powered corporate executive making millions of dollars per year. But not everyone has such luck, but in America they can live relatively fruitful, pleasant lives nonetheless.

Certainly, millennials will have a different job path than their parents and grandparents. It will likely take them longer to gain their footing in the labor market. But that hardly means they're hopeless, it just means they will have to work a little harder to end up in a job they like and attain a higher income. They won't be able to walk into any manufacturing jobs and succeed like their predecessors, but they will have opportunities in technology, the service economy, and other U.S. industries that will endure.

The American Dream that so many other nations envy isn't to live a perfect life. It's to have the opportunity to succeed if you work hard. You don't get that in some places, but you do in the U.S. The millenials won't lose out on that, but they may have to work a little harder to attain it.