Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Is the American Dream Dead?

"The American Dream is dead."

For decades, critics have proclaimed the American Dream is dead. Donald Trump has recently proclaimed it. Bernie Sanders has said that "for many, the American dream has become a nightmare." And indeed, those who say so can back up their claims with numbers. But before we do so, we need to ask,

What is the American Dream?
The American Dream, according to, is the ideals of freedom, equality, and opportunity traditionally held to be available to every American. Practically, this is the idea that somebody can start with nothing and end up rich.

Social Mobility
A key concept related to this is whether social mobility has increased or decreased. According to Gregory Clark, a researcher at UC Davis, social mobility has indeed decreased. He says that America's social mobility was no different than "medieval England or pre-industrial Sweden."

Public Opinion of the American Dream
According to the Washington Post, which cites information from a Fusion 2016 Issues Poll (check here), the share of young white Americans who said that American Dream "isn't really alive". Interstingly enough, this has only equalized the proportions among young people of whites and young people of color. Although whites were half as likely as blacks to say the American dream is dead back in 1986, it is now roughly equal.

The New American Dream
The old American dream could often be invoked by the image of a house, a white picket fence, with a car, 2 children, and a dog.

Among modern youth, they are much more likely to say that starting a startup is the American Dream. In the era of Facebook, Twitter, or Apple, companies started by young Americans, startups topped the list of American Dream Components.

Personally, I don't think the American Dream is dead. The Internet has liberalized education, providing courses from top Universities to the general public (Coursera, Udacity, edX, etc.), programming has allowed anybody with an idea and skills to start a startup.

However, I will note that this freedom is not open to all fields. Those in mechanical engineering, business, etc. have not had their paths become easier. It is only inside the field of entrepreneurship (where programming reigns supreme) that all these paths are available.

No longer is the path to success limited to the university -> smart investing/ large family inheritance -> success. Many modern entrepreneurs decry the importance of an university education, and increasingly among the startup world, the programming skills of an applicant has taken precedence over the school on their degree.

1. Do you think the American Dream is dead? Why or why not?
2. What do you think of the role of programming in the American Dream?


Photo: Banksy


Monika Kepa 1 said...

I agree with the thought that the old american dream is dead while a new dream of starting a business and being successful in the economic would has taken over as the "new American dream." Although I think this is partially due to what society emphasizes at the time, the dreams of picket fences and two lovely children was how success was measured in the 1950's because success was measured by the means of a secure family life. Now with people focusing on their own dreams the family dynamic dream has faded in importance to many Americans as other things like job security and status become more importantly emphasized in our daily lives and it is not unusual to not have a settled down family at the age of 30.

Furthermore according to an article on Pew, another reason the old dream may be dead is due to the lack of growth in GDP which makes opportunity less visible than it had been previously. This change could have helped cause the shift from family stability to startup and "create your own future" dreams within the people.

Alton Olson said...

I think social mobility will naturally decrease over time in a capitalist economy, especially where we are today - more and more jobs are becoming automated, replaced, or partially replaced by technology (ATMs, self-serving gas stations, computers, etc). Of course, there are also jobs being created by technology, but one high-skill programmer position can replace thousands of manual labor jobs. When it's so hard to find a job these days and more fields of work are beginning to disappear, it becomes difficult to try and change your social class through working.

Answering your question about programming: I think programming will continue to play a large role in the future, especially as the trend of automation continues. The rise of machines and computers could mean we need much better education systems, as we will need more programmers and less low-skill workers.

Louis Villa said...

I dont think that a decrease in social mobility makes the American Dream "dead". The public school system and scholarships at notable universities makes it possible for even people of low income to receive degrees that will greatly help their professional careers. It is clearly difficult to get large scholarships to prestigious colleges, but I think that the path exists definitely gives motivation to many people. Dedicating yourself to take difficult classes in high school can be difficult, but it can definitely help someone achieve the American Dream.

I dont think programming has a significant role on the American Dream. It is definitely possible to learn it by ones self, but that alone is usually not enough to start a successful company. Learning how to market a business to investors and the public is not a skill that can be easily learned by ones self and is (usually) required to become "successful".

Josh Pollock said...

The research I've been able to find on social mobility (between generations) is conflicting and, at best, mixed. For example, Professor Florencia Torche noted in 2013 that: "[T]he evidence [that social mobility has decreased] is mixed and inconclusive, with findings from diverse datasets differing widely." [1] It's possible that the data has gotten better, but even so, an article in The Economist reported on a new social mobility study in 2015 that was published by economists from Harvard and UC Berkeley, which showed that intergenerational social mobility has remained fairly constant. [2]

So the American Dream, in terms of mobility, seems to be as alive as it ever was. But just how alive is that, really? I see equal opportunity as being one of the major components of the American Dream, but the idea that socio-economic background has no or even just a small bearing seems misguided.

People will often point to wild success stories like Andrew Carnegie or Henry Ford as proof that the American Dream is real, and while they certainly made it (and there are a wealth of other examples of these dramatic rises, pun intended), these examples serve more as powerful anecdotes than as support for some type of dream.

It seems to me that any new economic sector will give rise to a handful of absurdly wealthy people. Think Crocker, Stanford, and Vanderbilt from the railroad industry. Or what about Gates, Jobs, and Larry Ellison (co-founder of Oracle) from personal computing? What about Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Mark Zuckerberg, and Jeff Bezos from the rise of the internet? (These movements have spawned many other wealthy people as well.) To address your second question, I think programming will play a significant role in the American Dream of the 21st century. It's a skill that is not only useful in a wide range of fields, but also one that is essential at the cutting edge, where the new billionaires are likely to originate.


Danny Halawi said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Danny Halawi said...

Regarding your first question, I don't necessarily think the American Dream is dead, but more like it's dying out. The evidence you stated is sufficient enough to say that moving up socially or going from rich to poor is not as easy and one might expect. Also, from a personal stance, I've had family from Syrian recently move to America with the idea that they'll be very successful here; however, after searching hard, they haven't found any promising opportunities.

For your second question, I think programming actually plays a critical role in the American Dream that most people don't take the time to consider. Programming has allowed most people with an idea and not much money to have a startup. Many of these startups, successful or not, are hiring many people with the same dream to be apart of a huge industry, thus promoting the American Dream.

kristen said...

No I don't think the American Dream is dead at all. America remains the top destination for world immigrants who view this great nation still as a place where there is a level playing field, an opportunity for anyone with a grit and determination to have a fighting chance to make it for themselves. Americans may think that over the past two decades, with the technology bubble bursting in 2000, the financial crisis that followed in 2009 which was caused by excessive greed in WallStreet resulting in multiple recessions in that decade, many "main streeters" barely maintaining their heads above water with job losses, their property values tanking, that their American Dreams had turned into American Nightmare, however, not until you place yourselves in the shoes of the immigrants who tried so hard to escape economic calamities, social injustice, prejudice, discrimination, lack of opportunities and so on, you can begin to put the greatness of this nation in perspective. America and the American people are very resilient. We are founded on the basis of freedom and our government, no matter how critical we have been over the past few crisis, have the fundamental checks and balances to continue to self correct. We have the tools to do so, via the elections of our representatives. No where else in the world we can have this kinds of dynamics and not lose faith on our nation ability to overcome. The opportunities presented to Americans are not just limited to those who can code (programmers). Yes that's the rage these days because of where we live (Silicon Valley) and the "social" revolution that is enabled by this "Internet Super Highway" where people are so connected, and the power of computing enabled really on our finger tips with the smart phones, tables, watches, etc., and the well known companies that are at the forefront of this revolution such as Google, Facebook, Snapchat, Tweeter and so on, but many other "dreams" are realized in America. Indeed phenomena such as Facebook allows many businesses to flourish at a fraction of the cost of what it takes to create, fund and run a business just ten years ago. This creates many more small businesses that have the chance to grow by taking advantage of the digital economy. Not only the creators, or the "start ups" strive, but also start ups in other areas such as services, retails, gaming and sports that can take advantage of these digital tools. Indeed, the American Dreams are alive and well, and are spreading through out the world.