According to a report by the Pew Research Center, the net worth of U.S. households headed by an individual 34 or under was 31% lower in 2009 than it was for the same group in 1984. It's hard to imagine, with such a drastic reduction in net worth, that the American Dream is still attainable. But prosperity and success, the two main tenets of the generalized dream, are still attainable as long as you change your way of thinking and adapt to the financial realities presented by the current economy rather than clinging to methods used by generations gone by.
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Is Home Ownership Still a Part of the Dream?
Buying a home has often been associated as a big part of the American Dream. Owning a home is a financial decision like any other, not a default activity that everyone should try. To understand the distinction, consider this: no one would ever say that every investor should own shares of XYZ Corporation. Instead the decision to invest in a certain stock or financial instrument is evaluated by every individual investor based on his or her goals, level of commitment, needs and optimism surrounding the investment. Home ownership is no different. (If you do decide to purchase your first home, read Top Tips For First-Time Home Buyers.)
Homeowners in Trouble
Those who bought homes in the last decade may have thought they were buying into the American Dream, but this decision took a dramatic and unexpected turn resulting in many homes being underwater, a state in which the balance of the mortgage outweighs the home's value. This is helping to dilute a great portion of the potential net worth of the generation Pew discussed in its report, which is unfortunate. However, it's worth noting that these individuals do still own their homes. If they maintain the same income that they had when they bought the home, then many of them will continue to be able to pay the mortgage and live in the home. So if their idea of the American Dream was to be a homeowner, they are still realizing that. If it was to make a profitable real estate decision, then they may be out of luck.
In order for a home purchase to fit into an investor's dream of success and prosperity, it must either increase in value or meet an intangible set of factors that an individual investor has determined as his or her definition of success. (For related reading, see Attention Home Buyers! Why You Need A Lawyer.)
Where Does Income Fit In?
It's easy to try and interpret your income as a measure of success, but is that really fair? Some of the lowest paid professions out there are some of the most socially conscious and important. There are those who would, and do, readily sacrifice financial security and comfort in order to make a difference.
Prosperity and success do not necessarily go hand-in-hand. Often, one individual's definition of success may stand between his ability to create prosperity. If prosperity is a defining factor in your idea of success, then it's important that you focus on making the kind of career moves that will help you gain that, but you still must remember that there are no guarantees. And while a college degree may have been the ticket to high income 20 years ago, the market is much more competitive now and you may need to take other steps to convey your value to employers. (For more information, read Top 10 Highest-Paying Jobs For 2011.)
The Bottom Line
The American Dream has been too-long tied to the idea that prosperity brings happiness and that the same set of moves that delivered the dream's realization decades ago will work today. While living in survival mode is probably not the ideal situation for those looking to be happy, neither is it a requirement to have a nest egg of millions in the bank. Instead, why not focus on your definition of the American Dream. Understand it based on your priorities and potential and make relevant individual decisions rather prescribing to a group of pre-set parameters and steps. (For related reading, see Is Your High-Profile Job Worth The Price?.)