The American dream is just that: A dream

Ava Razavi

When I was in grade school, I often listened to my parents tell me their childhood stories as immigrants. I sat at the edge of my bed, eyes wide with curiosity as they shared their story of immigrating to the U.S. from Austria. Theirs was a story of success. They worked hard and managed to build a stable life with jobs, financial security and a family. My parents weren’t an anomaly; thousands of people in the 1990s had their eyes set on the same ideal: the American dream.

When I was younger, living in Germany, I watched these traditionally successful families flash across my TV and thought, “that’ll be me one day.” I was going to move to America, go to college and live a perfect life. Unfortunately, the reality of the American dream is far different from the life of “Full House” and “Boy Meets World.” It’s clear to me now that the dream I always envisioned is far more exclusive than it was decades ago. 

 The American dream is the idea that anyone, regardless of their upbringing and financial status, can become successful if they work hard. According to YouGov, an organization that analyzes beliefs about the American government, the idea was based on Baby Boomers’ desire to do better than their parents, and for a while, the American dream was feasible. All that was required to build a financially stable lifestyle was to get a college degree in the desired field and find an office job with a steady salary. This set up the suburban utopia that many Americans yearned for — a two-story house with a white picket fence, an adorable golden retriever and the standard nuclear family. 

The biggest fallacy regarding the American dream is that everyone, despite of socioeconomic status, can break the cycle and become successful. With high-paying jobs requiring college degrees, work opportunities for those who cannot afford college are meek. According to CBS News, as college premiums have gone up, wages have remained stagnant. To mitigate this student debt, graduates take on second and even third jobs to make ends meet. The same CBS article identified that currently, 13 million people are working more than one job, most of which have no set hours or salary. It’s becoming more and more clear what the American dream means — working as hard as you can until you’ve almost killed yourself. Then, you might, if you’re lucky, be debt free. The new generation of workers no longer seek profit; they simply don’t want to be paying back banks anymore. 

Illustration by Calla McBride

This is a problem in and of itself; the American dream promotes a culture of basing self-worth on money in order to achieve a warped ideal of success that relies on monetary value and work hours. According to CBS, between 1979 and 2013, productivity grew 64.9 percent. Meanwhile, the hourly compensation of production and nonsupervisory workers, who comprise 80 percent of the private-sector workforce, grew by just 8.2 percent. People are working harder and harder while being paid a measly wage. It’s time to recognize that the American dream is no longer attainable for those who come from lower income areas. 

This dream only suits the upper class, which mainly consists of the same people who were in power at the creation of our nation — white, heterosexual, cis-gendered men. My parents always made it clear that I would never be treated the same as my “pure-bred,” male counterparts. As I watch all of my immigrant family members find work in America, I realize that money moves in a cycle. Generally, the rich remain rich while the poor work their asses off to get what was handed to the upper class at birth. At this point in our economy, the highest-earning one percent of Americans receive 95 percent of the income gains. While minorities have slowly become integrated into the blue-collar workforce, the American dream exists solely to motivate white men. If you look at a nuclear family, it is two children, a dog, a working husband and a traditional wife. The men are the ones who, according to the ideology, “work hard, play hard.” 

I have no intention of crushing anyone’s hope. There are plenty of people who come from lower socioeconomic statuses and thrive due to hard work and dedication, my family included. And if you believe you can get out of your socioeconomic status by getting a college degree or working multiple jobs, I applaud your work ethic and devotion. Yet, for those who shame workers for not trying hard enough or call them lazy for not having economic stability, I suggest you take a hard look at the economic situation you were born into and the opportunities that you were guaranteed because of your generational wealth. There is no excuse for blaming people for being stuck in the system that oppresses them into their positions, much less for judging others’ definitions of success. It’s vital to recognize that success means something different to everyone and that it isn’t always based on monetary validation.