My American Dream has a number, 4.92. No, it’s not the interest rate I got when I bought my house or my car, and it’s not a 50-meter dash record, or anything else. I will tell you the story of that number shortly, but before that, it’s important to understand what the American Dream truly is.
At its core, the American Dream is the vision statement for the United States. It is aspirational, forward-looking, and an invitation to pursue what is meaningful to you. Its most common definition, first coined by the author James Truslow Adams, is the dream of a land where people seek to live “better, richer, and fuller lives” regardless of where they started, has stood the test of time. But it is not an assurance. And for many decades that dream was out of reach for many Americans because of the injustices of the past that we should all acknowledge and learn from. However, the promise of the American Dream was not born out of slavery, it was not born out of exploitative capitalism, or any other evil that people may want to ascribe to it. It was born out of freedom and aspiration.
Despite our incredible polarization, most Americans are hungry for a commonsense harmony where we respect each other and find something meaningful to coalesce around. I believe that common ground can be the national ethos of the American Dream. But the problem is that the Dream has become increasingly misrepresented, misunderstood, and — worst of all — underappreciated.
Fortunately, a recent nationally representative survey we conducted gauging Americans’ beliefs about the American Dream offers some hope. One of the most pressing questions of our time is whether this dream is still alive, if it is fading, or if it is now simply out of reach for most Americans.
What we found is that — at least according to Americans — the American Dream is alive and well. 74 percent of respondents, or three in every four Americans, say that they have either achieved the American Dream or are on their way to achieving it. Only 24 percent of Americans we surveyed said it is out of reach. The pandemic has certainly affected peoples’ perception of the dream. But even still, although 45 percent of survey respondents said that the dream is further out of reach, only 11 percent said that the pandemic pushed it completely out of reach.
We also asked what represented achieving the American Dream for them. In our survey people were asked to classify statements by how essential they were to the American Dream. 82 percent said that freedom of choice in how to live was essential — which topped the list. 81 percent said having a good family life was essential and 71 percent said retiring comfortably was essential. When it comes to what most people might associate the American Dream with, owning a home, only 49 percent of respondents thought it was essential and 44 percent thought it was important but not essential. Most importantly, only 13 percent of people, or about 1 in 10, said becoming wealthy was essential to the American Dream.
Another important factor our survey asked about was whether perceived they had more opportunities than their parents. In our survey 85 percent of respondents, regardless of race, but even more so for blacks, reported that they had more or about the same amount of opportunities than their parents. Only 15 percent of people thought they had fewer opportunities. And when asked if they thought their kids, if they had any, would have more opportunities than they would, the majority of people thought their children were likely to have either more or about the same amount opportunities they had. Only 18 percent of respondents said their kids would have fewer opportunities.
Now back to my story. My own American Dream was founding a startup nonprofit dedicated to rekindling the American Dream and being able to write this article. Has the road been easy? Not even close. So why did I start of by saying 4.92 is the number of my American Dream? 4.92 is my Uber driver score from when things got tough. I could not pay my full salary for quite some time and was racking up a substantial amount of credit card debt. But despite the uncertainty and struggle, that episode in my life represents everything I cherish about the American Dream. I had the opportunity to pursue my American Dream and chose to do it. I became an entrepreneur, albeit an intellectual entrepreneur, as my organization is a think tank. But I was not promised success and it is no guarantee even now. This country and the promise of the American Dream gave me the opportunity to pursue what was most meaningful to me. But there are no assurances.
So when things weren’t going according to plan, I had to continue pushing forward and make ends meet by working as an Uber driver — a decision in which I take a lot of pride. Sometimes between customers, I would follow up on certain projects, reply to emails from donors, and even discuss papers with Nobel laureates with whom we were trying to work. Aside from finances, the stress of it all had taken a toll, albeit a small one, on our family. But through it all, and with the support of my family, the opportunity to continue to pursue my goals while working part time on a flexible schedule was one of the best experiences I had. I reaped the benefits that the entrepreneurial spirit and innovations of businesses like Uber, and other gig economy companies, were able to provide to so many who refuse to stop pursuing their dreams.
All of those experiences, the good and the bad, the failures and the triumphs, represent my American Dream. And my story is not exclusive to me by any stretch. There have been countless people throughout history who have endured even more challenges, and even today’s successful entrepreneurs and founders go through these ups and downs regularly. But that is what makes each dream unique. And that is what has made the American economy and culture resilient and dynamic.
We can hope that the recent election is a first step in becoming a less polarized nation and it represents a new period in the country’s history where we are united. While this hope is important, I wouldn’t bet on it. Regardless of which political party is in the White House, our best bet for empowering people to achieve success is striving to coalesce around the promise and vision of the American Dream instead of relying on politics for our ultimate source of meaning. In the meantime, even though things have turned around for me and I haven’t driven for Uber in a while, I still haven’t deleted my profile. I will be ready to do it again and again whenever needed because I am fortunate enough to find myself in a place where I am free to pursue my dreams, against all odds if necessary.