The American Dream was a term first coined by James Truslow Adams in his 1931 book Epic of America. It was a phrase that encapsulated a concept which many Americans since the pioneers have aspired to achieve.
Some examples of the American Dream include social mobility, the opportunity to start a family or business, and access to education.
The five pillars of the original American Dream include democracy, rights, liberty, opportunity, and equality, all of which contribute to an individual’s equal access to success.
American Dream Examples
1. Anyone can Succeed
Underpinning the mythology of America is that there are no ‘kings or queens’. Everyone is equal and anyone can become the president. The people who settled the United States fled Britain where there were kings and queens, and a social hierarchy that was hereditary rather than based on a person’s character.
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2. Success through Hard Work
The protestant work ethic is central to the story of America. Protestants believed that working hard and building a free world was God’s work. If you work hard, God will reward you. Today, many people believe that this remains the secret to why the United States got so prosperous so quickly. While this is true, there are other elements as well, such as the fertile open ground that the pioneers encountered.
3. Upward Mobility
Upward mobility refers to the ability of people born poor to work their way up the economic ladder if they put the work in to succeed. Exceptional examples of this include Oprah Winfrey and Howard Schultz. According to American mythology, anyone can become wealthy so long as they put enough effort in.
4. Owning your own House
The dream of many Americans is to own their own patch of land to raise their family. This has become a signifier that someone has reached the upper middle class. They no longer pay rent, but pay their mortgage with the promise that one day the house will be theirs – free and clear.
As house prices rise, many have complained that it makes the American dream harder to reach.
5. The White Picket Fence
In the 1950s, when the American Dream was in full swing, an idealized vision of a house with a white picket fence and American flag hanging off the porch became synonymous with this mythology.
The image conjured by a white picket fence is a peaceful neighborhood with children riding their bikes down the street, a father working in the factory downtown, and a mother raising the children at home. This dream seems outdated in today’s day and age, but in the 1950s in particular, it was a beloved ideal.
6. Starting a Family
Starting a family is an accomplishment that many people idolized when the American Dream was at its peak. Being able to provide for a family and ensure that your children are brought up well was considered something to aspire to.
7. Starting a Business
Today, entrepreneurship is highly regarded in the United States. During the cold war, it was one key indicator of the difference between the Americans and the Soviets. The Americans could start businesses and pursue personal success. The Soviets could not.
During many American hardships (for example, the Great Depression), not many people were able to start a business and have it be a success. However, the American Dream suggested that this was possible.
8. Owning a Car
Similar to owning a house, a car is another marker of social and economic stability and is seen as a possession that people need. In fact, cars have been an obsession of many American subcultural groups for decades. We see, for example, many young men buying big trucks and placing American flags on the back. The truck is a part of their mythology about the greatness of their land.
9. Free Media
With a free flow of information and culture, whether via television channels, newspapers, or advertisements, the American Dream offers an ability to understand the world around you on your own terms, coming to your own education opinion. This is in contrast to the ‘unfree’ countries American compared itself to, which often controlled the mass media narrative.
10. The Pursuit of Happiness
More relevant now than when the American Dream was first idolized, the pursuit for happiness if often regarded as an equivalent to success. Whereas material success was the pillar of the first wave of the American Dream, it has now changed to emotional success.
11. Abundant Natural Resources
America is full of oil, arable land, and coastlines. All of these elements come together to create a country which is rich both in terms of natural resources and the subsequent wealth that comes with them; anyone can get involved in these industries.
In a meritocracy, people are able to get ahead based on personal merit and achievement, rather than relying or being pulled back by the social class of their parents. Meritocracy means everyone is judged on their skills or value, and not on the color of their skin, their social class, or any other ascribed states.
Americans have an option to acquire goods and wealth. This is the pillar of materialism, and it is something that the American Dream has always alluded to. Indeed, consumer-capitalism in the United States encourages materialism and frames buying things as a pathway to happiness. Here, materialism is a positive concept, although to many, it’s also environmentally destructive.
14. American Exceptionalism
American Exceptionalism is the belief that America is fundamentally different to other countries across the world. For example, many who believe in this mythology think that America is the only country which is ‘free’ and offers true individual liberty. This myth helps American believe they can do anything (going to the moon, for example!).
15. Individual Liberty
Individual Liberty is where a person’s rights are outside of the government’s province to control. The American Dream offers freedom to vote, freedom to travel, and freedom to spend time with anyone a person chooses. You’re free to protest, free to own property, and no one else is allowed to do harm to you.
16. Freedom of Religion
The modern United States of America was founded on freedom of religion. The early pioneers came to America to escape religious persecution in Europe. In America, you are allowed to freely get involved in any religion you desire, and you will not face any negative consequences – at least, in regards to the law.
17. Intergenerational Wealth
With intergenerational wealth, you are able to set your children up for success. This doesn’t just refer to the 1% of super wealthy, however – no, in America, any parent who owns a home or has a stable job can immediately ensure that their child can inherit it. Central to the American Dream is the fact that you’re not just looking after yourself. You’re looking after your children as well.
18. Immigrant Success
Every American alive – with the exception of the indigenous people – can trace their ancestry back to immigration (forced or otherwise!). As such, America has a long history of immigrants who have hopes and dreams to travel to America to make better successes of their lives. As such, the American Dream is intimately intertwined with the immigrant story.
19. Freedom of Speech
One of the key pillars of American society is the opportunity for freedom of speech. This is the “power to express one’s opinions without censorship, restraint, or legal penalty.” It’s central to the American constitution and a reason why dissidents and whistleblowers feel comfortable in the United States in a way you wouldn’t feel comfortable in a country like Russia. Another freedom of speech example is the right for a person to protest outside the white house.
20. Fair Justice System
In America, even the accused and the guilty have access to a fair trial. Their rights will be respected throughout the procedures, and their voices will always be heard. Many people fleeing third-world countries look to America as a place worthy of migrating to because of the perceived fairness of the American civil society.
However, as many people of color know, the justice system often feels all-to-unfair, making this a ‘dream in progress’ rather than something that has been fully realized.
Real-Life Examples of the American Dream
There are numerous real-life examples of the American Dream, usually in regards to those who were born poor but worked their way to the top of the economic ladder. This rags-to-riches story is especially prominent in American society. Below are some examples.
21. Oprah Winfrey
Oprah Winfrey grew up in terrible poverty. She had a bad upbringing, but was determined to make her way in the media industry.
Oprah had to fight her way to the top. Being a black woman, she needed to break through numerous glass ceilings. The greatest, perhaps, was convincing the media executives that she, a black woman, could run a successful talk show in the United States.
Today, Oprah is one of the most recognizable American celebrities and enjoys extreme wealth.
22. Howard Schultz
Howard Schultz is the owner of a substantial portion of Starbucks stocks and is credited with being the man who made Starbucks the biggest coffee chain in the world.
Born into a regular lower middle-class family, Schultz worked his way up in the retail world, including by working in Starbucks in the early days. He left to start his own coffee shop, Il Giornale, which later merged with Starbucks.
From there on, he became the CEO of Starbucks and grew it to the coffee magnate it is today.
23. John D. Rockefeller
John D. Rockerfeller grew up in a turbulent household in New York, but by pulling himself up by his bootstraps, Rockerfeller rose to become the wealthiest American of his era.
He found his wealth through his oil company, called the Standard Oil Company, which at one point controlled 90% of all oil in the United States. He was later a prolific philanthropist.
Rockerfeller once spoke about how he believes the dignity of labor offers every person the opportunity to make a living.
24. Andrew Carnegie
Andrew Carnegie was a Scottish immigrant who left poverty to move to America, and since then, ascended into unmeasurable wealth. Carnegie obtained his wealth through the steel industry, which was in high demand during United States expansion and the growth of its major cities.
Carnegie is seen as an example of the American Dream because he managed to migrate to the country, build wealth, and grow a family. In the last years of his life, he donated 90% of his wealth to people in need, making him a prolific philanthropist.
25. Arnold Schwarzenegger
Before he became famous, Arnold Schwarzenegger left Austria to pursue the American dream. Schwarzenegger moved to California, where he became very successful in the body building industry. Later, he became a famous actor, and then the Governor of California.
Schwarzenegger often talks about the American Dream in his origin story. He moved to America because he was attracted to the prosperity, open spaces, and perceived liberty.
Examples The American Dream in Books and Movies
Since the creation of the American Dream, it has been showcased in books and movies across the world. Examples are below.
26. The Great Gatsby
In the Great Gatsby, the character of Gatsby rises up in social rank and obtains financial success, making him the embodiment of the American Dream.
One key theme throughout the book is that of old money versus new money. Gatsby was a rags-to-riches story, but he represented new money: people who climbed the ranks of society through grit and hard work.
He was rejected by the old money people, who didn’t much like the lack of social capital of people like Gatsby.
Nevertheless, through the book, we learn to like Gatsby because he represents the ‘true’ American who makes his way through life by working hard.
27. The Grapes of Wrath
A consistent theme throughout John Steinbeck’s novels was the concept of the American Dream. This includes in his two most famous texts, Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath.
In The Grapes of Wrath, farmers from the dustbowl are forced off their land due to a combination of economic and environmental factors. They make the great migration to California in search of a better life.
Life isn’t easy on their travels, however, and it becomes clear that Californians don’t want these new migrants there.
Here, we see a quintessential American Dream narrative: people pursuing this mythology, but facing the barriers and discrimination that make it less attainable than first thought.
28. A Streetcar Named Desire
In A Streetcar Named Desire, the character Blanche is seen as the person in pursuit of the American Dream. She is down on her luck and certainly doesn’t have much wealth. But she aspires to a high-class lifestyle nonetheless, and her desire for this lifestyle represents her ‘dream’.
Like The Grapes of Wrath, a key theme throughout A Streetcar Named Desire is the unattainability of the dream despite great effort and desire.
29. Revolutionary Road
Revolutionary Road is the story of a couple who, from the outside, appear to have achieved the American Dream. They own their own house, have two cute kids, and are a seemingly happily married couple.
But in the privacy of their own home, the couple are grappling with how disappointing their life really is. The outside appearance is all fake. The wife wants to move to Paris to start a grand adventure. The husband is having an affair.
In this film, the futility of the American Dream is explored: even if you get it, it’s not going to make you happy.
30. The Pursuit of Happyness
In The Pursuit of Happyness, we get a glimpse of the American Dream in a more positive light. A down on his luck salesman, who ends up homeless with his son, gets a crack at an internship in a big firm.
Among the crowd of candidates, only one will get a job after the internship. So, our main character works his guts out, and gets the internship. The story here is simple: work hard, and the American Dream will be yours.
Criticisms of the American Dream
The American Dream is a concept which was especially popular around the time of its creation, but has since diminished.
Many people have become disillusioned with the American Dream, largely due to its unattainability. Nowadays, more young adults than ever are unable to afford children, houses, or even education. This suggests that somewhere along the way, the American Dream has become less and less a reality.
Furthermore, many see the concept as a parochial nationalistic mythology. Americans may laud it, but looking from outside, people in Europe, Canada, and other western nations might remark that the dream is more alive outside of the United States than within it. Today, there are nations with better universal healthcare, affordable college, and safer civil society, than the Untied States.
The American Dream is a term that was first coined 100 years ago but has been part of the American mythology ever since the founding of modern America. It is the idea that every person has the opportunity to create their own success.
The American Declaration of Independence states that “all men are created equal” and that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is available in this country.
There are many real-life examples of the American Dream, but people are becoming disillusioned with the concept. Soon, this idea may be broken down completely, into a society which believes more in emotional success than material success.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]