While the American economy is sick, the American Dream may be slowly dying. "A great number of Americans are redefining the American Dream," ABC News reported September 9, noting that more Americans dream of being debt-free than of owning a home.
Citing findings from a GFK Custom Research survey of 1,000 Americans 18 and older, Credit.com chairman Adam Levin writes
The poll underscores something I have long suspected -- there's a great deal of nostalgia for a promise that increasingly and tragically looks to be further out of reach for newer generations. Once upon a time, the American Dream was a Technicolor affair, replete with two and a half thriving, college-bound kids, a dog or cat and not one, but two cars in the garage that were owned outright, or would be before they were ready for the crusher. Finally, and most importantly, for generations of Americans the American Dream was about owning a home.
Now it appears that for millions of Americans, the American Dream is looking different.
To them, financial survival equals success and the American Dream is about staying above water while the kids pile up an average $27,000 of student loan debt, mortgages are upside-down, and not enough money is finding its way into retirement portfolios.
When once 81 percent of young adults said their main goal was getting rich, today it's an age of falling expectations, when "27.9 percent [the largest segment] of respondents see the American Dream as retiring at 65 and 18.2 percent see it as owning a home, 23 percent view the American Dream as being debt-free."
It's the economy, stupid
In what may be one of the greatest understatements of the century, Levin says, "The Great Recession affected all of us."
Certainly an economy with 2 percent or less annual GDP growth, with job creation that barely keeps up with population growth, with more than 59 percent of new jobs being only part-time, and with unemployment figures in the 7.5 percent range only because more workers than the entire population of Pittsburgh have given up looking for work doesn't exactly inspire dreaming big.
"Today," Levin notes, "more Americans dream not of affluence, but of basic financial stability...When Americans dream of retirement and freedom from debt, they dream of being able to exhale."
When the poll asked what financial goals are most important to respondents right now, being free of debt/credit card debt was at the top (33.4 percent of responses). The runners-up weren't even close: Retiring at age 65 (11.6 percent), buying or paying off a car (11.3 percent), sending a kid to college (8.1 percent), buying a home (6.8 percent), paying off student loans (6.2 percent), paying off a mortgage (5.6 percent ) and buying a vacation home (3.2 percent). (And 13.8 percent had no response, for those of you doing the math).
While some debt is absolutely vital for a healthy American economy, the way many of us experience debt is anything but positive. We've all seen the statistics about record-breaking credit card and student loan debt. Those numbers are troubling for some and sources of enormous personal stress for others. Many of us don't take the time to consider how this new financial reality has changed our expectations of what's possible for each of us to achieve.
Specifically, more than five out of six respondents "felt it was unlikely that they would ever be debt-free in their lifetime."
The biggest loss of all
As a result, says Levin, today's economy has cost us something even more valuable than money. "Most of us still believe in the American Dream," he concludes, "but the nature of that dream seems to be changing...[W]hat's always been special about the American Dream is our ability to make them come true. When we've lost that, we've lost a little bit of what it means to be an American."