How did we get here?

How does one achieve the American Dream?

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The answer undoubtedly depends upon one’s definition of the Dream, and there are many from which to choose. John Winthrop envisioned a religious paradise in a “City upon a Hill.” Martin Luther King, Jr. dreamed of racial equality. Both men yearned for what they perceived as perfection. Scholars have recognized widely varying conceptions of these quests for American excellence.

One component of the American Dream seems, however, to be fairly consistent: the quest for money. Few will deny that Americans are intently focused on the “almighty dollar.” In a society dedicated to capitalism and the maxim that, “the one who dies with the most toys wins,” the ability to purchase a big house and a nice car separates those who are considered successful from those who are not. Yet the question remains, how does one achieve this success? How is the Dream realized? For many Americans, the formula is one of instant, albeit elusive, gratification. Rather than adhering to a traditional work ethic, far too many Americans are pinning their hopes on what they perceive as “easy” money.

Rags to riches the traditional way: through thrift and hard work
Instant wealth has not always been a major component of the Dream. Americans have traditionally centered their efforts on thrift and hard work. During the Colonial Period, Benjamin Franklin counseled people on the “The Way to Wealth.” Poor Richard’s Almanac advised that “Early to Bed, and early to rise, makes a Man healthy, wealthy, and wise.” The key to wealth was industry: “Industry pays debts,” insisted Poor Richard. Americans of the Early Republic expanded Franklin’s notion of industry into a labor ideology. For many the goal was not extravagant wealth, but, rather, economic independence and the opportunity for social advancement through financial gain.

Abraham Lincoln insisted that the greatness of the American North was that industry allowed all men to prosper: “The prudent, penniless beginner in the world, labors for wages awhile, saves a surplus with which to buy tools or land, for himself; then labors on his own account another while, and at length hires another new beginner to help him. This is free labor–the just and generous, and prosperous system, which opens the way for all.”

In the midst of industrialization following the Civil War, many Americans experienced profound hardship in the changing economic landscape. They found solace in the tales of Horatio Alger, whose characters overcame adversity through industry, perseverance, self-reliance, and self-discipline. The ubiquitous “rags to riches” legend became a cornerstone of American society; anyone could succeed and achieve wealth if they worked hard. The commitment to industry illustrated by Alger’s characters, Lincoln’s ideals of free labor, and Franklin’s practical maxims were further solidified in the American mind by the addition of a religiously based, Protestant “work ethic.” Many believed that hard work allowed one to not only achieve financial success, but, through that success, revealed God’s grace.

Numerous scholars note that the shift away from the traditional American work ethic corresponded directly with the rise of industry. Work values changed dramatically when the assembly line production and machine-driven atmosphere of industrial America swallowed up skilled workers. The aftermath of World War II exacerbated the ethical shift as a consumer culture blossomed and Americans became preoccupied with material goods. As one critic noted, “consumed by desires for status, material goods, and acceptance, Americans apparently had lost the sense of individuality, thrift, hard work, and craftsmanship that had characterized the nation.”

The result of this shift in work ethic has actually spurred rather than lessened the people’s desire to achieve the American Dream. Yet the real difference is that the Dream has become more of an entitlement than something to work toward. Many Americans no longer entertain a vision for the future that includes time, sweat, and ultimate success. Rather, they covet the shortcut to wealth. Many who are engaged in work view it more as a necessary evil until striking it rich. This idea has been perpetuated by a massive marketing effort that legitimizes the message that wealth can be obtained quickly and easily. Whether through the television entertainment industry, state-based lottery marketing drives, or legal advertisements, Americans are told again and again that the road to the financial success of the American Dream is more a matter of luck than hard work.

Author: Excerpt from “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire: Changing Conceptions of the American Dream” by Matthew Warshauer, history professor, Central Conn. State University