The Evolution of the American Dream: 1776 – 2016

The American dream means different things to different people, but most can agree that it’s at the very least a free, safe and comfortable life. The ability to attain this dream has been fueled by the freedoms and industry of our country. Here’s how it all came to be.

Great Beginnings: A New Nation

After the American Revolution, American citizens were free to explore, invest and make their dreams come true. The American dream was very rich in this period of discovery, as many of America’s resources were unclaimed. These resources held the promise of land ownership and investment in land or industry. The country gave many an impoverished immigrant the opportunity to work themselves out of poverty to reach great heights.

Engines of Change: The American Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution proved to be one of the biggest influences on the development of the American dream. As big businesses took root and expanded, new innovations and improved modes of production combined to greatly improve the American standard of living. During this period, there were many rags to riches stories that led to the belief that if you have talent and work hard, you have a good chance of living a successful life.

Civil War and Reconstruction

In 1865, as slavery was outlawed, more Americans had a chance at achieving the American dream. This period also saw the nation unified after a bloody Civil War that lasted four years. Following the Civil War, many Americans experienced difficulties in the changing economic landscape as the country rapidly moved towards industrialization. Many believed that the only way to achieve their shared American dream was through hard work.

World War I: Progressive Era

As the war raged across the world, there were equally momentous occurrences in the country as well. The economical and industrial boom during this period reshaped both urban and suburban life. The industrial revolution that had begun towards the end of the 19th century was sped up thanks to the war. Essentially, the war made the American dream a tangible reality for increasing numbers of Americans. It was the beginning of America’s backbone of economy and technological growth.

The Great Depression: Tough Times

The Great Depression was the longest and most severe economic downturn in American history. During this period, unemployment skyrocketed and reached levels as high as one third of the population. Crop prices crashed by half and hunger became a reality as food production became unprofitable. Severe unemployment was the order of the day with thousands and thousands of migrant farmers were now forced to travel the nation looking for jobs. Homelessness, poverty and a sense of hopelessness spread through much of the nation, making the American dream distant.

World War II: Renewed Hope

For three decades following World War II, most people in the U.S. were on a positive high. The American dream was easily achievable, with some Americans going from rags to riches. During this period, all Americans could look forward to a steadily increasing standard of living and a better future for themselves and their children. Wages rose substantially, ensuring that most families could afford more. Education and a better standard of living became achievable dreams for millions. Perhaps most importantly, workers could retire and enjoy their life after decades of hard work.

The Modern Era

Currently, America is facing a crisis of economic disparity. Americans are achieving the dream bigger than ever before, as evidenced by people like Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey, but there is an equal and opposite effect for America’s poor. As the rich get richer, many of the poor get poorer and America’s middle class has begun to erode. During the past three decades, most Americans have seen their living standards grow worse. Wages have stagnated or fallen, people who believed that their livelihoods were secure have received a pink slip and those who haven’t lost a job often find themselves working longer and harder than ever before.

The middle class dream of a home is also being eroded as the prices of homes and interest rates keep rising. It is possible for Americans to reclaim their dream, but perhaps the only way to do it is to relearn the importance of hard work and self-reliance: ethics that once embodied the American Dream.