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The American Dream: Still Here?

At a town hall meeting this week with President Obama, a woman in the audience told him that it “feels like the American Dream is not attainable to a lot of us.”

That dream—work hard and anything is possible—has been in our collective DNA for centuries, luring millions of people to our shores.

That dream is what prompted me to start Women For Hire – the only career expo company geared to women—11 years ago from the bedroom of my apartment. It’s what has prompted me to plan eight Spark & Hustle retreats for small business owners and aspiring women entrepreneurs in 2011.

But now, an ABC News/Yahoo poll finds that a large group of Americans—apparently dejected by the economy—agrees with the woman who spoke up at the town hall meeting.

In the poll, half said the old adage still holds true—perhaps not all that bad, given the economy’s condition.

But a whopping 43% say that the basic principle of grade-school civics—“if you work hard, you’ll get ahead”—was true once but isn’t any more. Four percent of people said it never was.

I’ll never give up on the American Dream. Things are tough for sure but I am convinced that the can-do spirit that has been the hallmark of America forever is alive and well.

But it worries me that so many of us think the American Dream is in jeopardy. Which brings me to ask: what can each of us do to make sure the American Dream remains strong?

Let me know.


  1. Deborah

    What I think needs to be done is that those who are coaching our executives, should not be promoting “lazy leadership.” Leaders of today are trained up to be lazy — you know, “work smarter not harder” “delegate” or labeling people as “taskers.” Taskers are those who work hard, yet are not promoted, get no significant raises, no development training, and are always reminded of the looming threat that if you don’t do it, then “you are not a team player” and I can write you up for being late! That’s right, it’s hard to write someone up for being insubordinate, but it’s easy to use tardy to push them out the door.

    Taskers is a cruel word used in business that translates to “do the dirty/grunt work. These are the people who bought into the American dream theme — work hard and you will get ahead. Now, we work hard and our leaders take the credit/bonus.

    It used to be that if you work hard, you will get ahead. People don’t respect that anymore. You are not considered leadership material. Lazy is the way to go.

    So what can we do to keep the american dream strong? Either change the theme to reflect the new belief system or get to work!

  2. Patty Gale

    I think that depends on what your definition is of the American Dream. Is it the big house in the suburbs with 2 cars in the garage, perfectly manicured lawn and the white picket fence?

    Or… is it having the time freedom to create experiences and do the things that really matter with the people that matter most in your life?

    For many of us, it was all about ‘go to school, get a good job and retire with a pension.’ Well, that isn’t working for a lot of people any more.

    I think in the last couple of years, many people have begun to redefine what the American dream means to them. I know our family has and it’s been very refreshing.

    For us, less is more. Less stuff, less house, less of the ‘noise’ that distracts us from what is most important in this life.

    For us, being in charge of our own financial security and defining what success means to our family is part of our dream that we are making reality.

  3. I too worry about the American Dream as I see equality and opportunity for all turn into availability for all. And I look around and see a younger generation coming into the workforce wanting it all without having to generate any effort. I even see this in myself. I am often guilty of wondering why my success isn’t happening faster – when I’ve only made one call. Sometimes I wonder if I really possess the inner strength to work hard enough for my dreams to come true.

    So how can we help instead of just talking about it? Well – there are many women out there like me – women in the workforce with positions of influence. And by position of influence, I mean any woman who doesn’t work in a bubble. We all have the power and potential to lead others in our words and actions. So let’s take that role seriously. Let’s “teach” others, mentor others – show them those values that are crucial to success: hard work, persistence, personal responsibility and accountability, a sense of humor (my favorite), honesty, priorities in the right place, a desire to serve others. Let’s show them what it feels like to take pride in your work and to have a strong sense of accomplishment and purpose.

    Let’s teach them that they create their destiny, not wait in line for someone to give it to them. It’s time that we become Mr. Miagi to the Karate Kid. And it takes time, patience, forgiveness, and persistence. It starts in the home and works its way into our communities. We need to somehow show our children a new set of role models – not the ones who sing to them from music videos.

  4. Barbara Bloom

    Hi there,
    I can see both sides of the discussion regarding the basic concept of “work hard to get ahead”. I have been gainfully employed since i was 17 years old, and i do see both sides of the discussion, however it is also about internal drive and refusal to give up on the dream. I think many people are apathetic and willing to roll over and give up. After loosing my corporate job to unemployment several months ago I realized now is the perfect time to begin an enterpreneurial endeavor. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Or in the words of a famous movie – if you build it they will come. I say to that vocal group that believes the dream is dead – dont give up. Never give up on our nation, or the possibilities of following the dream. The difference between the past and now is just awillingness to take risks.

  5. K. Scott

    I think the American Dream is/feels dead is that more illegal aliens are given rights and jobs before the people who are here legally. I have no problem with people who come here, legally, to find their dream. However, I live in a state that has so many illegal aliens here and individuals who may be legal or not who do not speak the English language. This fact alone, prohibits me from getting a job. If I can’t get a job in my own country because I can’t speak another language from another country, there is a problem. People who are not here legally are using up our resources at the expense of those that are either citizens or are here legally. And what does this say to those people who wish to come to our country legally but they see illegals getting support, in many ways? It says, I don’t have to follow the laws to be in that country and gain employment. It is truly discouraging because our country is supporting and encouraging this mentality.

  6. You have to define what the American Dream is for you. Then of course, it’s still possible. I do believe working hard pays off. I left the corporate world five years ago to become a voice over artist and I am now working in the business in radio and television. It will eventually be my only source of income. That is how much I believe in myself and my craft. That’s my American Dream! Good luck with yours!

  7. Gretchen

    I think we have to expect more out of people. We allow employees to do less than stellar work. We also do not reward hard workers. We tend to give everyone the same % raise, whether you go above and beyond or you just show up every day. There is no longer anexpectation of reward for doing an above average job so…everyone settles for average.

  8. I don’t feel the American Dream is here for American Citizens and those here legially. I am a Senior using a wheelchair and speak English only. I have learned not to apply for positions that say bi-lingual preferred or only. But employers are looking for the younger and not disabiled. I have many skills but cannot even get to the interview. Hard work and good work ethics don’t count anymore. I have finally given up on working because it is very discouraging.

  9. S. Gehm

    I believe that the American Dream requires a collaborative spirit of leaders, workers, managers, and employees genuinely working together harmoniously. This is lacking in a great majority of workplace venues. I have seen and experienced too many behaviors in the workplace over the years that show that managers and leaders often feel “threatened” by new talent, new ideas, etc. and resort to intimidation tactics in order to “control” a situation to preserve their job. Even in the hiring process talented people are often overlooked for the very reason that they are talented, smart, and motivated. Even though career search boards will tell you that this is what the employer is looking for in interviews, I can tell you that if you appear too smart, experienced, or savvy you are often turned down for a role because the hiring manager can see the potential conflict that the new person may be smarter than them. This is a definite problem with the American Dream when those who have jobs can control those who don’t by simply being in the position to choose. The market is so competitive now that the subjective opinion of a less than qualified manager can ruin the chances for someone who might be a perfect fit for a role.

  10. s.v

    The American Dream is not lost, its the American People not having FAITH!! We must not give up the American Dream, our future is within our children. If we give up, what are we teaching our children, what will they have to look forward to???? Our children are the future and they have a right to AN AMERICAN DREAM TOO but if we don’t instill it, they will never have it. We must focus on our family and the future and never forget that without GOD nothing is possible! I think thats the problem, not everyone believes in GOD anymore.

  11. Eric Bischoff

    Maybe it’s time for a new dream. Maybe it’s time for humility. Maybe it’s time to model excellence wherever we find it. We are morally and fiscally bankrupt and we are dangerously close to acting like desperate Germans in the 30’s.

    Maybe it’s time to value healthy, sustainable, ecological, peaceful, cooperative living instead of our current obsession with consumption, greed, war and coveting other’s resources.

    We have a lot of work to do. It’s no time to feel sorry for ourselves.

  12. People need to start thinking about alternatives; radical change in American values. Inovation, inspiration, community suupport, and motivation not based on material gain only.
    We need to start here..something different that makes our country strong. I wholeheartedly support developing a mindset that I/we don’t try to be Number one all the time. Lose the global thought that American needs to be at the top. Then we can concentrate on creative ways to sustain our lives that allow for new concepts…If we change our minds, then we can change our lives in America.

  13. Diana

    I think we need to define what the “Dream” is…and it may be a new one from the ones from days of old. If it’s your dream to have the house with the picket fence, 2.5 kids in the yard, 2 brand-new cars in the driveway, and the credit card bills, double mortgage, and car payments and line of credit to pay for them, I would say that’s gone – and GOOD RIDDANCE!! The days of people “wanting it now,” and paying for it with tomorrow’s paycheck that may or may not be coming, I hope is gone.

    Instead our focus should be the core values that brought us the prosperity we squandered. That dream is NOT dead. Remember gratitude, strength over adversity, humbly doing whatever it takes with excellence and integrity, loving and helping your neighbors and your family, Faith in God and country, and being an active part of your community. That is what our country was founded on, and if we learn these lessons we are being taught right now, we will rebuild stronger than we were before and in a better place for it.

    Let’s hope these lessons are not wasted and that apathy and bitterness don’t become the norm!!

  14. 2gether We Build

    Thanks again for planning the Job Fair today @ 1335 Avenue of the America, I spoke with one of your mentor’s. Who guided me down a path of righteousness.
    On the other hand, as far as the “American Dream” goes…
    I’m not interested in it at all. I have my own God given dreams. That’s my security. I hope that other’s will follow suit. If they have learned anything at all from the past and the present circumstances of our country.

  15. Annie

    American dreams or God’s dreams for us… which road and path are you going after….I go with God’s dreams for me..which is not always according to our will but for God’s glory and purpose. What has happened to the American dream is lost focus on what’s really important in life. We took a bad detour and a U-turn is not good enough…We are all stewards, endowed with the responsibility to steward earth’s resources and share our God given gifts with others, to build each other up in community, to do the right thing, Unfortunately history has taught us we tend to not learn from our mistakes – to me that is clarity of God’s presence, scolding and discipline by the greatest Father. What happened to America is frankly a lot of our own undoing and disobedience – why do we think job, income, wealth, cheating others, greed and power are more important at the exclusion of God’s gift to us – our very life. God did not give us things so we can enjoy life, God gave us life so that we can enjoy all things. When I rely on God’s security, I’m safe and secure. Jobs, income, material wealth and stuff are a means to an end. I’ve had enough miracles in my life to know and trust this to be true. We all have to ask ourselves am I asking God for guidance and discernment or am I relying on my limited human thinking. Our own thinking and self will got us in the mess we’re in, it’s time to change – nothing changes, if nothing is changed….

  16. NB

    Support any legislation that prevents jobs from being sent overseas. Start manufacturing goods in this country. Change the way employers look at age . Unfortunately It is difficult to see a way that we have much control over these factors that keep many people from being employed .

  17. Karen

    I think the American Dream is still attainable. Several of us, including myself have lost money, have had to change jobs and work two or more jobs to achieve that dream. The economic conditions we have experienced has changed how we approach obtaining that dream. I know I struggle but I feel that I am one of the lucky ones. It will take time.

  18. When we say “American Dream” the operative word is “dream.” Dreams are aspirational and do not come with guarantees. I think a lot of our national malaise or just plain battle fatigue comes from the fact that, in a go-go economy, people equated dream with birth-right. If we go back to the origin of the dream, it stems from the Protestant work ethic; in other words, individuals have to work hard for rewards and those who do will be rewarded.

    The American Dream,then, speaks to the entrepreneurial spirit — the crux of capitalism — where we’re responsible for the pursuit and our eventual reward. If we look at the dream that many now feel no longer exists, they’re not referring to that entrepreneurial spirit, they’re referring to a paternalistic work environment that they think is supposed to take care of them. Sounds a little like socialism, no? And socialism is at odds with our market economy. When things were good, business could afford to reward more cavalierly, as the competition for talent was intense. Now that the market forces have precipitated a major, and some say, overdue adjustment, things have been cut back drastically. So, the Big Daddy of business has to cut the kid’s allowance. But that doesn’t stop the kid from mowing lawns and building a landscaping business or selling lemonade and owning a restaurant or catering business, or babysitting and starting a childcare business, etc etc. From that standpoint, the American Dream is alive and well and always will be as long as human nature has personal initiative and free will at its core.
    The problem we’re having with the American Dream is not the dream itself but, instead, the definition of reward. These days, the reward can simply be getting to keep one’s job. Bu that doesn’t even happen without much better than average effort. In fact, it’s essential that workers deliver value everyday.
    That said, the good news is that, as a result of our recent economic trauma, more people are redefining their idea of reward and are finding it often in personal fulfillment rather than in bags of greenbacks. The point is that we have choice — we can regard the American Dream as a checklist of promises unfulfilled or we can regard it as an organizing principle, a spirit behind what’s possible. But, no two ways about it, it requires work, and lots of it.

  19. I saw a billboard that read, “Bill Gates started Microsoft during a Recession.”

    can’t stop thinking about it….

  20. Diane Dumais

    Today, you have to work harder and smarter for the American Dream. The old saying “Change is inevitable…Growth is optional” is more true today than it has been in many years. We need to make adjustments in how we spend our money, live our daily lives and how we search for jobs and careers.
    There was a time when it was unheard of to think that computers would ever take the place of people. But here we are in 2010 and my five year old has computers in her classroom and she is already proficient on how to use them. The average US household owns 2.6 computers. My point is, we need to adjust how we make a living to what the needs of society are right now. If you work for a real estate attorney when no one is buying real estate, think about joining a personal injury group. If you own a car dealership and no one is buyng cars, focus on the repair end of the business. You may need to take a detour from your current career path to get you through the recession, but like everything else, this to shall pass.
    The American Dream is alive and well….it’s just taking a little vacation for some of us.

  21. The comments here have been very enlightening and cover the range of concerns I have about the American Dream.

    I tried for 15 years, but could not fit well into a corporate America that seemed to promote and support too much routine non-sense. Whether due to narcissistic leaders who are more interested in controlling others than the quality of work from staff, many insecure managers cannot co-exist with thinking people. They want staff to fear and/or worship them. They sometimes want to treat mature people like children, making mutual respect hard to accomplish. Even when roles and authority levels are different, smart leaders know that other people are intelligent, not just them.

    Too much in the workplace is based on subjective factors, not whether someone is competent or how their contributions benefit a company. Too much emphasis seems to be placed on whether a “worker bee” is well-liked. Being liked by all is an impossible standard given the reality you’re likely not going to please everyone, anywhere, at all times. Not bosses, not co-workers. I’ve known plenty of popular people who were liked mostly because they routinely did other people’s work, didn’t ever speak up or otherwise were doormats.

    I dropped out of corporate life and became an Entrepreneur/small business owner when my tolerance became low for workplaces that forced too much inauthenticity. I am grateful I don’t now have to spend too much time socializing with co-workers I have little in common with (or those who saw it as their job to gossip and otherwise waste other people’s time), go in circles attending too many non-helpful/repetitive events or countless meetings (where not much gets resolved or accomplished)as happened when I was on someone’s staff full-time.

    For the last five years, I have been working independently from home. For team projects, I have external meetings about twice a week with different clients or colleagues. I really love collaborating with others on projects for mutual benefit.

    I believe it is possible to create a life we love based on our own vision — not strictly defined by someone else’s notions — of the American Dream. My two small businesses are and I am open to meeting other entrepreneurial women and men who truly appreciate mutually-supportive professional relationships.

  22. I believe the American dream is obtainable. It is just harder to see now. I hear many people complain they feel they will never see a raise. They are just lucky to have a job. Others I know who were unemployed and found employment are only hired on a six month contract and then the employer will see about offering them a job. I feel we can not give up despite the negatives. This country was founded on dreams. This is the perfect time to think about who you really are and start your own business. I know I am starting my own business. When the recession passes we will all come out of it stronger than before.

  23. Ann M.

    I feel this woman’s frustration. I voted for Obama and I feel like I’ve been used. I really wish I could have a face to face with him.
    Anyway, if one doesn’t have a real life plan – the one put into place with corporate America shuts you out – the dream dies and it’s hard to revive. I just knew I would always be employed until I decided to retire.
    My last three work situations led to lay-offs after each company or division was sold to others who brought their own people.
    My dream of happy retirement, and traveling is long gone. I’m single and my savings are depleted. I’m also over 60, so where do I turn for help?
    I admire those I know who chose to stay on their ‘good government jobs’ and are now retired and have health insurance and some income and little stress. They used to say “I’m not making as much money as you, but I’m staying”.
    I keep my rose colored glasses on and tell myself that someone is looking for me because I can bring so much experience to the table.
    I really want to work from home, but so far have not found anything that excites me enough to push on through. I haven’t given up looking though and will be at the Oct. 6 event in D.C.

  24. Veronica

    I use to believe in the American Dream. When all this money was given to these corporate giants to help with the economy and to help homeowners save their homes. I wonder what Obama and his administration was thinking. Mortgage companies got that money promising to work with homeowners including my mortgage company, and have done nothing. The Government is doing nothing. I raised four children as a single parent, served my as a AmeriCorp Member for two consective terms. In return I was always told that because I wanted a better life, my children could not participate in summer job programs that provided training and mentoring. Its always about money, and not who truly need the help. I struggled to keep my children out of the hands of drug dealers, and away from the street life. I will not vote ever again! What about the people, the common people who work 9-5 and pay a majority of the taxes, and are the losing their jobs, homes, and hope! The American Dream is no more.
    The American Dream is everyone for themself

  25. H.

    The “American Dream” is only possible for a certain number of us as long as we continue with a capitalist economy, which is extremely likely as this “dream” is strongly capitalistic in nature – inherently materialistic and overly individualistic. Think of the retail giants whose executives have reached the dream on the backs of workers earning minimum wage. The workers then have no time, money, or energy to improve themselves (with higher education, for example) to achieve their own dream, and no other way to gain the necessities of life because all of the American land and resources, originally arbitrarily claimed/stolen from Native Americans, stays in the same hands and is sold to everyone else. On top of this, of course, there’s the employment discrimination against females, non-whites, non-heterosexuals, etc. that bar them from economic progress. As long as white males continue to hold onto resources that do not rightfully belong to them, sell them to the rest of us at exorbitant prices, and refuse to give anyone else a piece of the pie, severe economic inequality will continue.

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