Curiosity got the better of me the other day. I was wondering when the concept of The American Dream began. So down that Google rabbit hole I went, in search of the origins of that oft-repeated phrase.
Surprisingly, the first time that phrase appeared in print was in some newspaper article penned in 1931, an interesting time, indeed, the depths of the Great Depression and all. I didn’t read the article, just a synopsis of it, but it was a carrot-dangling of sorts, hold onto the American Dream, work hard, and success will be yours, a white-picket fence, a car in the garage, a home for life.
We’ve all grown up hearing about it, have we not? Work hard, save up, strive and persevere, and good times await you. The wording may not have been the same, but that was the promise back in the 1800’s, and 1900’s, that a man, or woman, determined and goal-oriented, had a chance to make it in this wonderful nation called the United States. In fact, Henry Ford himself went so far as to say, that the only reason for failure in this majestic country was if a person were of weak character, unsuited for the hard work required to succeed financially in this country.
The American Dream on a personal level
My parents believed it, for sure. They came to Washington State, from Iowa, shortly after WW2, in search of The Dream. Within five years they bought a house, and I have no doubt my Dad’s plan was to work hard for thirty years, pay off that mortgage, and live out The Dream into retirement. Unfortunately, death derailed that plan, for my father, three days before his fiftieth birthday, fourteen years short of realizing The Dream.
Truthfully, I can’t think of a single relative of mine who did not chase The Dream, including yours truly. I bought into it, hook, line, and sinker, and played the game with the best of them. But all the while there was an uneasy feeling within me, a subconscious knowing, if you will, that all was not well in my quest. You all know the feeling. I know you do. Perhaps not about this particular topic but, at some point in your life, you’ve experienced that prickly-skin feeling that something is not quite right with the situation you were in.
A random question, or perhaps not that random: Who was the idiot (excuse my derisive language) who first thought that working forty hours per week, for thirty or forty years, during the prime of your life, was a great idea?
Here’s my problem with the whole American Dream thing
Well, truthfully, I have many problems with it, probably the largest of which is the fact that it is pure fantasy for tens-of-millions of Americans. But let’s skip over the discussion about Economics and move on to my personal musings.
Again, you will have to excuse my language, but working one’s ass off, for three or four decades, for a Nirvana which may not happen, seems like folly to me. May not happen? If you could ask my dad about that may not happen thing, his answer would be crystal clear. Death pursues us all, and none of us is aware of when the man-with-a-scythe will come calling. Not to mention the fact that the economic system is stacked against you, and the worth/value of your retirement is reliant upon the wheelers and dealers in the corporate world, and the cigar-smoking white men in Congress.
But there’s a philosophical problem, as well.
It’s all based on a false assumption
And that assumption is this: That happiness is based upon the acquisition of that white-picket fence, two-car garage, and stable job, a blatantly false assumption if there ever was one.
I’ve had jobs where I was paid six-figures. I’ve had jobs where I was paid barely enough to buy food and pay rent. I’ve purchased twelve homes. I’ve lived in a pickup truck. I’ve rented. I’ve lived in a studio apartment of 300 square feet, and I’ve lived in 3,000 square foot homes on five acres.
And none of that had anything to do with my happiness! And therein lies the whole point of this rambling writing.
We need to stop right here for a disclaimer: I have nothing against those who chase after the American Dream. If you love your life, in a rambler, on property, with possessions galore, I say bravo to you. If suburbia fills you with warms and fuzzies, I stand and applaud you. But, and this is a mighty big butt, if you are chasing your tail, in pursuit of a false dream which most likely will never happen; if you are working countless hours simply to stay one step ahead of the debt-collectors; I say to you, there has got to be a better way, and that is one large reason why we, my wife and I, are off on our wild adventure, starting in 2023.
Changing the narrative
It all begins with the knowledge that happiness can be had, at very little cost, just about anywhere. Happiness is an inside job, to quote an old mentor of mine, long gone now.
I don’t need a brick-and-mortar home to be happy. I don’t need property. I have good health, and I am loved, and hitting the road is not going to change that at all.
So, why not make my own American Dream? Why not change the narrative?
The wonders begin March, 2023! Stay tuned!
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Thank you very much!
Bill & Bev
And a fine answer it was, Zulma. Thanks! Makes perfect sense to me. I have always had identity problems. I imagine it stems from being adopted, and never feeling like I fit in any family.
I don’t think you’re being nosey at all. It’s a fair question.
Honestly, I just never felt welcomed in the States. I didn’t fit into any social group. Not even the one I was born into. I didn’t share the same mindset as everyone else and was judged for it. As soon as I was old enough to leave home, I moved to the city to find my own path. That didn’t pan out, so I decided to try my luck elsewhere.
I didn’t have much money, so I gritted my teeth and joined the military. It seemed the cheapest way to see the world and find someplace to be. Landing in Heathrow, I felt so comfortable (apart from the armed police patrolling). I felt like I had come home.
My husband and his family accepted me and my quirks without question or judgment, as did most people here did. As soon as my enlistment was up, I separated here and built my life.
That’s pretty much it. I wasn’t happy were I was, so I found somewhere I could be.
Have a lovely day, Bill.
Zulma, thank you for that reflective response. Hoping that I’m not being nosy, what was there about the U.S. which led you to realize it was time to move on?
Me, not meant for the American Dream? I think I knew it at a very early age. There is a restlessness in me which has been in me for decades. I know I felt it as a teen. I know the status quo made no sense to me very early on. So now I’m accepting of that fact, and I’m going to embrace it and be happy.
And I appreciate you coming along for the ride.
I hope you are well, my friend. Thank you again!
It’s been a while since I’ve heard you wax philosophical. I’m glad you still have the knack.
I can’t say I believed in the American Dream, but in my own way, I’ve achieved that. Ironically, I had to leave America to do it.
We have a nice home. No white picket fence, which is just as well as my kids’ first attempts at driving, were, shall we say, a bit clumsy. One of them did manage to take out the neighbour’s fence. They understood as they had teen drivers too. We paid for a new fence panel, and my husband helped replace it.
We have a garage, but no car resides therein. That’s what the driveway’s for. The garage is for stuff we’re going to do something with someday.
There was hard work on my part. Not the 9-5 gig, though I did have one. The hard work was realising that my future was not in the States. I had to find somewhere else where I felt I belonged. I did that, and it’s come together nicely.
So, yeah, it may not be the hallowed ‘American Dream’, but it’s my dream, and I made it a reality.
Honestly, Bill, I don’t think you were meant for the American Dream. You’re too much of a free thinker. You question the status quo, wonder if it’s for you and then go your own way. I think you are happier for it. Continue forging your own path to happiness.
As always, the best of good fortune in you and Bev’s future adventure.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Liz! I think it is so important to have a solid base upon which to base our happiness and contentment, something which cannot be taken away from us, like your faith.
I have heard a lot about the American Dream over the years. To be fair I think similar notions occur elsewhere in the world, especially in the UK. Advertisers major on selling possessions to make us happy. Yet, all around us we see evidence that wealth and possessions do not bring happiness. In many cases the opposite is true. I applaud your attitude Bill, in breaking out and taking a different path and I agree with much of what you say. For me, personally, happiness and contentment spring from a Christian faith, not wealth or possessions.
Lil Sis, I will leave you with this quote by Einstein today:
“A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
Happy Thanksgiving, dear friend.
And I would say that you hit a nerve because so many of us are wondering what bill of goods we’ve been sold. I hear so many people say, “I did everything right.” And yet life hasn’t worked out the way they thought it would.
Ah, this human life is hard. I don’t know most of the answers. But I do know that there is something to be said for being able to run some errands during the day, take a nap (especially if you had a headache coming on) and then choosing what work you’d like to do in the afternoon. (This is what happened to me today.)
I a’int wealthy, and I have made some choices: choosing to be child-free so that I could pursue the things I wanted to do, living frugally in favor of having more freedom. But shew…that freedom means everything to me. 🙂 I *know* you know what I mean.
Look at you, Lil Sis, writing a short story about this topic. LOL I love it. Obviously I awoke a number of people with this article. I don’t usually have this many comments on an article. I think there are quite a few people out there who feel trapped, who feel hopeless, and who feel unfulfilled, and that is a very sad reality.
I tried to play the game, back in another lifetime. I really did. But it just wasn’t in me. Even when I was teaching, and I loved teaching, I never once thought “this is what I want to do with the rest of my life.” I knew then, and I know now, that I can’t set my roots anywhere for long.
Bev is similar, but she will have to come home from time to time to see her kids. Me, I could stay on the road indefinitely and be quite happy. Boondocking in the wilderness, waking up to different scenes daily, writing and taking photos, going for long walks, fishing in mountain streams…that kind of lifestyle was designed for me, and I can hardly wait. Someone else can chase the American Dream. Mine will be found at the foot of some majestic mountain.
We have talked about saving money and buying an acre of land somewhere, just a place where we can park our RVs when we want to settle for a few months, and we may do that…but first, a full year of traveling is in store.
Thank you so much for supporting us, in so many ways. Damn it, Little Sis, we simply must meet in person. I owe you a big old bear hug.
I could say so much about this!! First, I think I had my first “awakening” around the vagaries of “workin’ and gettin'” in 2011 when my oldest brother was killed in a car crash (in April). That same month, we found out we were expecting. Ten weeks later, on July 4th weekend, my cat died and I miscarried. It made for a pretty awful year. I finished out that school year (2011-2012) and said, “goodbye.” I had already been writing at HubPages and thought, “you know what? Life is short. I’m just going to do the things that interest me and go after what I want in life.”
Well, it turned out that that year was also hard. I ended up broke from trying to pay a mortgage and write and the teaching gig I had lined up (in a continuing ed program) fell through.
So, I returned to the classroom, part time, and not very happy about it. But I wasn’t going back to a 9-5, dang it.
I loved teaching again though. So I finished my master’s in Spanish. I got caught up in it and took a job heading an ESL program for mostly Spanish-speaking students. It was grant-funded and would only last two years. That was good because me lasting more than two years in a full time job doesn’t really happen.
After that, I went back to part time at the same school where I had been teaching Spanish part time, but this time doing digital marketing (and not teaching). I used the skills I gained from writing at HubPages and the apprenticeship with them. I also learned how to do WordPress.
Then I found a full-time gig doing digital marketing completely at home. Heh. I lasted “full time” about thirteen months. I went to part time for them and then just had to leave them behind. They were driving me crazy.
I relate all this because I think deep down, I have always known that I wasn’t built for this capitalist system. I’ve always lived frugally and when I’ve had more money, I don’t necessarily save more – I tend to “live more”. That means I buy better food and get things I’ve needed that I couldn’t get due to the expense of it.
All my adult life I’ve fluctuated between making just enough money to be somewhat comfortable to barely getting by with my finances. Somehow I’ve always saved a little toward retirement, and managed to have health insurance (affordable care act for the win!!).
Every time I have a full time job, my body, heart and mind recoil against the rigid schedule, rules and expectations of it all. I generally start to want to “get out” a few months in. I do much better having multiple part time jobs, but it’s harder to make a decent living doing that.
But that’s where I work on lowering my expectations: you don’t need a lot to be happy. You can go without. If you have shelter, food, water, and some love in your life (family, fur-kids or whatever), you’ve already got so much.
It’s easy to get caught up in it all: we’re constantly bombarded with marketing messages of “you need this” and “you don’t have that.” I am not immune to the shiny object syndrome. But living frugally has actually allowed me to pursue just about everything I’ve wanted to do: have (and save!) animals, road trip, learn to play piano, paint, do art, create businesses (though none of them has ever knocked it out of the park, lol), get in shape, live in the mountains – in beautiful places – work from home, live close to family, go hiking or biking regularly, go skiing regularly…you don’t need new stuff to do all this. You need a willingness to think out of the box on how you can make things happen.
I don’t live a conventional life. To be sure, I have 28.3 million interests and things I want to experience. But I feel like enough people don’t explore living and doing what they want to do NOW and buy into the fact that you always have to have new stuff, that you have to work so hard for it that you don’t get to see your family, and that you have to put in 30 years. It’s bananas.
Paulo Coelho once wrote about a fisherman who spent the mornings “working” (catching fish) and then spending afternoons with his family. And the lessons in that when a business man tried to convince the fisherman to have a corporation. Here’s a link to it if you’re interested (you’ll have to put in the https:// – I took it out in case your website considers links spam) paulocoelhoblog.com/2015/09/04/the-fisherman-and-the-businessman/
I have to remind myself of that story (and the life I’m trying to live and lead) when I start to get caught up in the “I need…” mentality. My heart reminds me when I’m getting caught up in it, too. I start to feel apathy and disgust and a certain level of depression because I haven’t accomplished…XYZ.
But then I remember that I would rather work odd jobs, try to make the best money I can while working those odd jobs, and have the freedom to be at home if I want to be, or go into the woods, or go on a walk, or practice the piano or paint something or take a nap or read…
In the end, it is better for me to earn less and find contentment within that, than to work more, work harder so I can spend more so I have to work harder.
You’re speaking my language, Big Bro. I could write a book about this whole idea. lol But not nearly as good as our friend Paulo Coehlo. That fisherman story is a good one.