The Evolution of the American Dream

American Dream infographicRaise your hand if you’ve ever seen Leave it to Beaver. A classic 1950s–60s sitcom about the comings and goings of an upper-middle class family, the Cleavers represented the ideal life in America: the perfect home, a beautiful family, and the lack of want for anything. Even today, the image of this spotless family persists as the American Dream many strive for. Others believe the American Dream is outdoing the previous generation. The way success is measured has evolved, and each generation has created their own image of the ideal life. So how do the different generations, from Traditionalists to Generation Edge, define the American Dream?*

*Disclaimer: The following isn’t an analytical measure of living standards or annual income. It’s a comparison of ideals among generations and an exploration of the evolving definition of the American Dream from generation to generation. “Success” can be defined as monetary success, fame, upward mobility, personal freedom, etc.


The dream: The self-made man
The mantra: “Pull yourself up by the bootstraps!”
Icons/pop culture:

  • John D. Rockefeller
  • Henry Ford
  • Walt Disney
  • Jay Gatsby (fictional, yes, but iconic nonetheless)
  • Social Security Act
  • It’s a Wonderful Life
  • Citizen Kane
  • “Four Freedoms” paintings by Norman Rockwell

It’s a well-worn fact that loyal and patriotic Traditionalists laid the foundation for many American intuitions today, and what is considered the modern American Dream began with this generation as well. Author James Truslow Adams tried to define this elusive topic in 1931. He wrote of “social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable.” This generation wished, quite simply, for personal freedom and the pursuit of happiness. Traditionalists gave life to the self-made man, one who came from humble beginnings, worked his tail off, and defied all odds to become an icon of success. As American playwright Moss Hart once said of New York City, “The only credential the city asked was the boldness to dream.” It can be said that the only credential America asked was the willingness to work hard and believe in the creation of a better life for all.


The dream: The white picket fence
The mantra: “Keeping up with the Joneses”
Icons/pop culture:

  • The Cleaver Family
  • Don Draper (a modern take on the embodiment of the Boomer "dream")
  • The Kennedys
  • The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet
  • Father Knows Best
  • Muscle cars

The term may have been coined in 1931, but the Boomer generation iconized how many still imagine the American Dream today. Lest we forget, Boomers are a massive group of 80 million. Soldiers returned from World War II, babies were boomed, and families moved outside city centers to raise their flock, resulting in suburbia and the middle class. The economy stabilized, consumer credit became the “in” way to purchase, and new technologies were just too good to pass up. Having grown up competing for everything from desks at school to gasoline to jobs, it was only natural that Boomers’ competitiveness would carry over into their standard of living as well. The idyllic life now consisted of ample space to raise a family (a house, yard, garage, and maybe a summer getaway cabin), a luxury car to commute to one’s job (and maybe a few more just for show), and things to fill space and show status. In 1952, four million Americans owned TVs. By 1960, that number was 50 million. For Boomers, the American Dream meant never having to want for anything and having the best of everything.


The dream: The corner office
The mantra: “Success is the best revenge”
Icons/pop culture

  • Yuppies
  • Gordon Gecko/ Wall Street
  • Scarface (not in a “let’s resort to crime” kind of way, but in a “this man didn’t achieve the American dream traditionally” kind of way)
  • Pretty Woman
  • Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
  • Springsteen’s “Born in the USA”

We often say that Baby Boomers redefine everything they touch. That is absolutely true. When it comes to ideals of success, however, Xers bucked the system and completely flipped the American Dream on its head. This was the first generation told it would be worse off than its parents, and with its relatively small population, Xers were often overlooked, omitted, and outcast. This resilient generation didn’t let that get them down, and as Frank Sinatra once said, “The best revenge is success.” Xers showed everyone they weren’t just skateboarding slackers. In the workforce, they’ve strived tirelessly to get the corner office, and even today Xers are crushing negative stereotypes of their generation. Xers are rated by their Boomer and Millennial cohorts to be best at generating revenue and building teams and considered least likely to be “difficult to work with” or “cynical and condescending,” according to Bloomberg.

What is so interesting about Xers’ American Dream, however, is that in the ‘80s, “the American Dream began to take on hyperbolic connotations, to be conflated with extreme success,” according to Vanity Fair. The subversive subculture of grunge and stickin’ it to the man was expressed in unique perspectives of the American Dream, where success is obtained nontraditionally. Scarface, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Fight Club, and Pretty Woman are a few pop culture examples that represented a different take on the American Dream, with success gained through crime or by escaping “the system.” This is not to say that Xers resorted to crime to achieve their ideals; they are simply examples of this generation’s unique commentary on the American Dream as they saw it.

Where Boomers enjoyed all the outward trappings of success, Xers are in it to win it—and they want it all. The corner office and time with the family.


The dream: Live for the journey, not the destination
The mantra: “You can do anything you put your mind to”, “Live as if you’ll die tomorrow”
Icons/pop culture:

  • The Social Network/ Mark Zuckerberg
  • Slumdog Millionaire
  • Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen
  • Oprah
  • Startup culture
  • Kickstarter
  • Jared Leto (This one may take some explaining. Leto is the frontman for the band 30 Seconds to Mars, an award-winning actor known for his transgender role in Dallas Buyers Club, founder of the digital marketing company The Hive, and a devout philanthropist. He has literally done it all.)

With optimistic Boomer parents supporting this generation’s every endeavor, it should come as no surprise that Millennials believe they can do it all. But, plot twist! The end goal isn’t the final destination. It’s not even worth the climb unless you have a collection of fun and sordid memories about how you got there—as well as photographic evidence to prove it. As the kids say these days, “Pics or it didn’t happen!” When all is said and done, having stories about running with the bulls in Pamplona, opening a restaurant, and meeting your significant other halfway across the world are this generation’s take on the American Dream. The house, the kids, the steady job—all well and good in their own time, but for Millennials, the American dream is in the here and now, and they are making the most of it.


The dream: Having and being enough
The mantra: “Success isn’t given, it’s earned”
Icons/pop culture:

  • Laverne Cox
  • Taylor Swift
  • Rosanna Pansino
  • Zoella
  • Barack Obama
  • Malala Yousefzi
  • YouTube celebrities

The generation after Millennials continues to baffle generational researchers. Though they certainly share certain traits with Millennials, they seem to share even more with—get this—Traditionalists. Growing up with realistic Gen X parents, Edgers are being taught to live within their means and work hard for achievable dreams. This generation is reviving the pursuit of happiness and the creation of a better life for all, but they’re striving for this American Dream in completely new ways. Living in a country that acknowledges and accepts gay marriage and transgender people, founding a tech startup, owning a home—these are Edgers’ ideals of the American Dream.

Nicole Timmerman MILLENNIAL