What is the American Dream? And Are You There Yet?


What is the American Dream? Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? Forty acres and a mule? A Ferrari, a mid-town condo and a blonde?

According to MetLife’s Study of the American Dream, financial security is still king, but family and freedom from want are also key criteria. And the age of the person you ask makes a big difference.

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Among the population that took the survey, 34% felt that they had already achieved the American Dream, while 70% believed that they would, eventually. However, 43% of those who had achieved the dream were afraid they might lose it, certainly a factor of our uncertain times.

Youth breeds confidence, when it comes to the question “Do you think it is possible for you to achieve the ‘American Dream’ in your lifetime?”  Of  those members of Generation X (born 1965-1977) surveyed, four in five who hadn’t yet achieved the dream believed they could.

Generation Y-ers (born 1978-1994) were even more optimistic; 19 of every 20 surveyed thought they could realize the dream.

Contrast this with older Americans. Of the Silent Generation (born 1933-1945), only 24% of those who hadn’t yet achieved the dream thought they could do so, while 53% of baby boomers (born 1946-1964) felt the same.

So just what is the American Dream? Those surveyed prioritized the dream this way (respondents were asked to pick their top three criteria):

  • Financial security:  65%
  • Family/children: 58%
  • Free from want, my basic needs are met: 43%
  • Comfortable retirement: 36%
  • Home ownership: 35%
  • Successful career: 31%
  • Marriage: 29%
  • Others: 3%

Here, too, Gen X and Y were at odds with older Americans, putting more emphasis on a successful career and family/children, less on retirement and freedom from want.

Unfortunately, 58% of those surveyed felt that what constituted the good life was a moving target, growing dearer with every passing year.

One important element of financial security is a safety net — personal and retirement savings and insurance products that safeguard you from a financial calamity. Here the story is sad; only around one in four Gen X-ers had what they felt was an adequate safety net, while one in three Gen Y-ers felt the same. Only half of the Silents felt that they had an adequate safety net, and only one in four Boomers.

The survey asked the question “For how long could you afford to be out of work and still meet your financial obligations?” The answers were frightening; 45% of all respondents said they could go a month or less; 19% could make it only two weeks. That’s no safety net; it’s a funnel to disaster.

What would the average American be willing to do to improve his chances of reaching the American Dream? Only 31% would be willing to relocate for a job. Some 81% would take additional training or schooling. Another 47% would accept a job for which they were overqualified, (good news for Starbucks), while only 24% would take a pay cut.

Respondents were more hopeful about the economy in the 2010 survey; 74% saw the economy getting better or staying the same, versus 50% in 2008.

We are also an increasingly generous population, at least within our own families. Some 64% of respondents reported giving or receiving help from family members. Surprisingly, some of those generous souls were also struggling themselves; only 47% of donors had enough saved to pay their bills for one month if they ran out of work.

Coming out of the worst economic decline since the Depression, it’s no surprise that Americans continue to struggle to get themselves on solid financial ground. However, perhaps led by optimistic youth, there is still a conviction among the respondents that they have it within their ability to achieve the American Dream.

What do you think? Have you reached the American Dream for yourself?