Fallacies of the American Dream and How We May be Harming our Children

The American Dream, while obviously subjective in its definition, epitomizes the idea of capitalism by reinforcing that In America, you can do whatever you want to do and be whoever you want to be.

And, sure, we know that this can and does happen. Everyone has heard the rag-to-riches stories, the infamous recounts from people who came to this country with no more than five dollars in their pocket and an imagination brimming with dreams. Naturally, these are the people who founded a small business, be it a restaurant or car dealership, and worked their way into billion-dollar lifestyles. These are the professional athletes from poverty-stricken families; the supermodels who immigrated for a better life; the Silicon Valley techs who never completed college.

Hard work and determination, that’s all it takes. That’s what has been drilled into our heads. As long as we have those two traits, we can achieve success. It may be slow and it may be mounted with obstacles, but it can be done.

Sounds good.

In theory.

But, for every pipe dream and every story with a happy ending, how many people fail?

A lot, it seems. This past financial recession and the widespread popularity of the occupant movements reveals just that, and in the past half-century, the once booming middle class has shrunk, making the class differences between the upper and lower class more evident than ever before.

 In a sense, the rich are staying rich and getting richer.

What about everyone else?

Capitalism benefits the wealthy because it relies on maximum potential of resources, which of course, the rich have. How so? A few reasons:

1. Income is associated with academic success, college enrollment, and college graduation, thus leading to more education and higher-powered careers.

2. Income is associated with greater health, both mentally and physically.

3. Income is associated with more resources (it’s not what you know, it’s who you know), and this is manifested through networking, powerful relatives and acquaintances, more opportunities

All of these three variables are high predictors of success.

Overall, more money = more leeway room for failure.

If a wealthy entrepreneur wants to open his own restaurant, he has more money to invest in marketing and start-up costs. If he needs loans, he will be more likely to receive approval due to his high income. Furthermore, if the business does fail, he is more able to recuperate after losses. Not to mention, this individual is more likely to have higher levels of education, more connections within the network (wealth brings power), and more professional support. Compare this to a man living just above the poverty line. He may be a genius chef and businessman, but if this man is married or raising a family, is he willing to sacrifice their finances? If he is already in a stable-paying position, is he willing to jeopardize that cushion of safety for an unpredictable, unreliable paycheck?

Those struggling with finances cannot necessarily afford to invest in such pipe dreams. If a poverty-stricken child enjoys singing and has obvious musical talent, her road to success will pose tremendous challenges compared to the daughter of a millionaire. The wealthier child may enjoy voice lessons, private conservatory schools, access to professional choirs, and parents who are willing to drive and spend money to audition and promote their child.

Hard work and determination? Sure, both children may work equally hard and be equally determined to achieve success.

Can raw, innate talent make up for the rest?

The American Dream is not unachievable, as we still have many new businesses and inventions emerging from individuals of modest backgrounds. Nevertheless, pessimism remains the general climate for most young adults in today’s society. With college rates soaring and employment meager, people are living at home longer, plagued with more credit card debt, and likely to settle for underemployed or underpaid positions. Likewise, their parents are likely to be racked with their own debt, potential possibilities for home foreclosure, the likelihood for reduction of social security and pensions, and their own fears of career layoffs. At the same time, we are literally bombarded with “get-rich-in-a-day” schemes, lottery results, reality television, the exploitation of lavish lifestyles, making us believe that anyone can join that elite life.

Moreover, we hate deluding the innocent children. After all, while we realize that the world needs the accountants, dentists, factory workers, middle managers, and construction workers, we don’t want them to settle for less than the glamorous. We want our kids to be the unstoppable athletes, breathtaking actresses, elegant models, unmatchable inventors, and the admirable superheroes.

Is this fair?

We want our children to defy the statistics, but yet, math is math, and disappointment is disappointment.

Is it fair to pretend that we are all on an equal playing board when eventually we everyone grows up and realizes we aren’t?

Is it fair to preach that hard work and determination always pays off?

Is it fair to be disappointed if our child doesn’t succeed in profoundly changing the whole world?

On one hand, it can be cruel and potentially damaging to a child’s development to explain how “the real world” works. We want to cultivate a nurturing and supportive environment. We want them to be motivated and driven to success, and having a solid dream can provide them with reason to work hard. Also, while it is numerically impossible for every child to be a star, there are always exceptions, always dirt-poor children who grow up to change the world and always believers who promise that if you want something bad enough, you can have it.

Yet, at the same time, ignorance cannot be bliss forever, and we may actually be doing a disservice to children by telling them that they can all be singers, ballerinas, and presidents. It can be hard for a parent to promise his children that they can grow up and be “whatever they want to be,” when the odds of that are so unlikely. Children of lower-class and now middle-class statuses are already at a disadvantage; they are more likely to attend less-prestigious schools and more likely to need to push education to the wayside in order to work.

How can one achieve those far-fetched dreams when food needs to be put on the table and rent needs to be paid?

The American Dream? What will it look like in the next century? Will the next generations of children grow up with that idyllic sparkle in their eyes believing confidently that they can be princesses and superheroes?