The Corruption of the American Dream

The Corruption of the American Dream March 10, 2015

In the year 1931, America was in the grips of the Great Depression. The Gross Domestic Product of the nation was cut in half and unemployment would reach a staggering 25%. One out of every four Americans were out of work. Hopelessness was rampant. It was out of the depths of this despair that historian James Truslow Adams coined a term that has come to define American life for the past century. In 1931 Adams created the term “American Dream.”

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It was meant as a beacon of hope in the midst of hopelessness. That even though circumstances were bad, we could make it through if we just worked hard enough. Here was his original definition: “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. . .It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable” James Truslow Adams

He was contrasting the American way of life with how life on planet earth had been conducted for thousands of years, where your position and success in life was largely dependent on whether you were born into the upper class or lower class. It was a dream where any person could work hard and achieve a life for themselves based on their own merit and imagination. It was a statement that in America everyone has the right to work hard and achieve a higher standard of living. His emphasis wasn’t on the higher standard of living (“motor cars and higher wages”), but the ability for each person to have the opportunity to achieve a better standard of living through hard work if they so chose.

But over the years this ideal of the American dream has been corrupted. It’s become less about the opportunity to work and more about the pursuit of stuff. James Truslow Adams defined the American Dream 84 years ago. Here’s how people define it today:

  • “I don’t dream football, I dream the American dream – two cars in a garage, be a happy father.” Barry Sanders, Hall of Fame NFL running back
  • “The American Dream is to reach a point in your life where you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do and can do everything that you want to do.” Jerry Reinsdorf, owner of the Chicago Bulls NBA team
  • I’m in a weird band. We’ve done very well. The American Dream is alive and well. Gene Simmons, lead singer of rock band KISS
  • I think the American Dream used to be achieving one’s goals in your field of choice – and from that, all other things would follow. Now, I think the dream has morphed into the pursuit of money: Accumulate enough of it, and the rest will follow. Buzz Aldrin, second human to walk on the moon

Or to go back to the original definition, here’s how we’ve changed it: “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. . .It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capableJames Truslow Adams

More money, more possessions, more cars, more clothes, more vacations, more fame, more success, more acclaim, more beauty. For many of us, our definition of the American Dream has simply become the pursuit of more.

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