Back in 1931, James Truslow Adams came up with the idea of the American Dream. In his book, Adams calls the American Dream one where everyone can live a rich life, where opportunities abound, and barriers of the past aren’t hampering progress. Throughout the years, (some say with a heavy push from the government to buy more houses), that dream changed to a house in the suburbs, a white picket fence, 2.5 children, and a dog. The idea was that you could have this quaint little family, a well-paying job, and life would be good. That dream brings about images of a 1950s style suburbia—something that has long since gone away.
The American Dream is still alive as we head into 2016. But it has changed dramatically. So much that it can hardly be called the American Dream anymore.
Student Debt Worries
Over the past half a century, college graduation rates have spiked. More people are going to college than ever before, and more people are graduating from college than ever before. Despite the fact that the majority of these students are earning degrees from non-profit, state-run schools, that education is costing significantly more than ever before.
On average, tuition inflates at about 8%. A good rule of thumb is to take the general inflation, and double it to get the inflation rate of a college education. For instance, in 1970, you could buy a gallon of gas for $.36 and attend Harvard for $4,070. In 2015, a gallon of gas would cost $2.40(a 666% increase) and a year at Harvard would cost $45,278 (a 1,110% increase). If those items kept pace with inflation, the gas would cost $2.20 (about where it was at toward the end of 2015), and the cost of attending Harvard would be around $24,895 (roughly half of what it actually is).
What all of this means is that students are spending a lot more on their education, and they are coming out of school and into the real world with far more debt than they can handle.
The American Dream has shifted from having a job that paid the bills, to having a job that pays the student loan.
Back when the American Dream was developed, there were two distinct types of workers: blue collar and white collar. The blue collar worker did the hands-on jobs — they were getting dirty every day, doing the manual labor that many people didn’t want to do. These jobs were often taken by those who didn’t have the education levels that others did. The other workers were white collar workers — they went through school, got their degree, and worked office jobs. While the white collar workers have always earned a little more (on average), the blue collar workers still made a decent living.
Today, there is still that divide between blue collar and white collar workers. The difference is that after earning a degree, many young graduates want to jump right into the white collar jobs. But they find that they can’t land those jobs, and they have to settle for a blue collar job. The biggest difference is that there is an enormous pay disparity. The pay gap between the blue collar and white collar workers has widened drastically over the years. While several blue-collar jobs pay well, if not better than some jobs that require a college degree most young graduates are working a job they don’t want, earning a wage that isn’t what they need to pay their loans, and ultimately feel unsatisfied with their career.
When the American Dream was first mentioned by Adams, health insurance was still a brand new concept. Before that time, health care costs were a lot lower, but all spent out of pocket.
In the mid-1950s, an era often associated with the American Dream, the majority of Americans carried health insurance. That insurance helped to offset the bills that many Americans faced, but it didn't eliminate the burden completely. Despite the affordability provided by insurance, healthcare costs still increased at a much faster rate than inflation, but how much faster?
Forbes took a look at the changes in healthcare costs. In 1958, the per capita health costs were $134. At the average wage for that time, it would take 118 hours of work to cover healthcare expenses (roughly 15 days worth of work). In 2012, America's per capita health expenses were $8,953. Based on the average wage for that year, it would take 467 hours to cover healthcare expenses (roughly 58 days).
Americans are now spending much more of their income on healthcare costs — working for nearly a quarter of a year just to pay those expenses.
The American Dream has come to include a job that has benefits to help pay those costs.
For many decades, if you worked for a company for your entire career, they would reward you with a pension. This meant that you wouldn’t have to worry about retirement. You wouldn’t have to scrape and save and depend on the stock market for your retirement livelihood.
In the late 20th century that began to change. As people were living longer than ever, companies saw they were having trouble keeping up with those payments. New hires were not given a defined contribution plan, rather than a defined benefit plan.
That means today’s worker has one more thing that they have to pay for out of their wage. A wage that hasn’t kept up with inflation. Social Security is still around, but there are worries that it won’t be around in years to come. So it is now all upon the workers to provide for their own retirement, pay their own healthcare expenses, pay off their own debt, and somehow still be able to live a fulfilling life.
The American Dream has come to include a job that has a good retirement plan.
The Bottom Line
50 or 60 years ago, if you went to college, you could expect to land a job that paid well, took care of expenses, guaranteed a secure retirement, and provided all that you needed. The American Dream was fulfilled by getting one of these jobs which essentially secured your home in the suburbs with a wife and a dog.
The American Dream today doesn’t include the 2.5 kids, dog, picket fence, and house in the suburbs. Instead, it focuses on eliminating worries rather than providing comforts.
Today’s American Dream is being able to graduate from college with minimal debt, secure a job in your field that has benefits, be able to afford health care costs (while saving for retirement and paying down loans), and still live a comfortable life. The American Dream still exists, but it has taken on a new form.