Third, the definition of the American Dream itself is shifting. If in the past, the hallmarks of the Dream were a white picket fence and a couple of children, now just over one in four respondents names “owning a nice home” as the most important ingredient of the American Dream, and only 14 percent name “having kids.” What respondents prioritize instead is flexibility and economic security: top elements of the Dream are now “living comfortably” (41 percent); “achieving financial security” (37 percent); “being debt-free” (36 percent); and “providing a comfortable quality of life for [my] family” (35 percent). Proponents of marriage and childrearing need not totally despair, however—when asked specifically about the role of marriage and kids in the American Dream, nearly two-thirds of respondents 30 and under—a higher rate than any other age group—said both are important to their Dream.
Fourth, Americans see substantial barriers to the American Dream, with the most common theme being lack of opportunity, including “rules favor the wealthy” and “economic inequality.” Republicans also tend to blame big government, as well as values-based barriers like a declining work ethic and a slump in moral standards. But while Americans vehemently agree that they need solutions—68 percent say action needs to be taken “immediately”—they are just as divided on solutions. Republicans want to reduce big government—cutting spending, taxes, and regulation; Democrats want to expand access and opportunity, including making college free or much more affordable, expanding access to free healthcare, and improving access to quality education in poor communities. That party-line split may be familiar, but take note: Independents are only 8 points away from Democrats on their sense of the nation’s problems, and 13 to 20 points away from Republicans. Not since Reagan captured many disaffected blue-collar voters has there been such potential for America’s Independents to swing so sharply in one direction.
Finally, amid all the ups and downs of the last decade, there’s an undercurrent of resilience about the American Dream that suggests it’s more about opportunity than outcome. More than six in ten Americans believe the Dream can best be accomplished with hard work, compared to only 28 percent who say “circumstances of birth” and 11 percent who say “luck.” And Americans remain comfortable with the idea that outcomes do not have to be spread equally and the Dream will play out differently for different people. Nearly two-thirds agree with the statement “As long as I am able to provide the life I want for myself and my family, it doesn’t matter if others are substantially wealthier than [I]”—compared to only 36 percent who say, “The concentration of wealth and privilege within the top one percent of American society is a problem.” More than three-quarters of Americans believe that so long as people have “roughly the same opportunities” to achieve their goals based on effort and merit, it is “still okay” that some people do not achieve them.
The American Dream is alive and well, in living rooms if not in the national psyche. As the 2016 election season heats up, pundits and policymakers should take note of not just the changing truths about race, age, and party, but also this gap between national pessimism and personal optimism. Sometimes the truths people live are more important than the ones they may fear.
Don Baer and Mark Penn presented these findings at the Aspen Ideas Festival on July 1, 2015.