What is the “American Dream”?

It was “in the definition of the American Dream by James Truslow Adams in 1931, [that] life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.”

Neither social class nor circumstances of birth were to be considered. Hard work would allow for the very real and attainable possibility of prosperity, success and an upward social mobility for the family, children and generations to come.

Drawn from the Declaration of Independence and its proclamation that “all men are created equal,” and have the inalienable right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” this national ethos attracted millions upon millions to our shores and land.

Historically, the Dream’s genesis was linked to physical movement and the alluring mystique of the frontier. Whatever was part of the great beyond attracted the adventurer and held promise of something better.

The Royal Governor of Virginia in 1774 aptly observed that Americans “for ever imagine the Lands further off are still better than those upon which they are already settled,” punctuating this remark with the notion that “if they attained Paradise, they would move on if they heard of a better place farther west.”

The American Dream of the Puritans characterized by “…men and women content to accumulate their modest fortunes a little at a time, year by year by year,” morphed into the California Dream which connoted instant success, birthed by the discovery of gold in 1849 California.

Historian H.W. Brands noted that in the years following the Gold Rush this new dream of instant wealth and splendor — milk and honey — swept the nation and “won in a twinkling[,] by audacity and good luck…became a prominent part of the American psyche…”

In 1963 Martin Luther King, Jr. assimilated some of the basic tenets of the civil rights movement into his vision of the black quest of the American Dream when he wrote in his “Letter From A Birmingham Jail” the following:

“We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands…when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American Dream and for the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.”

“Baby Boomers” — those born during the post-World War II period roughly from 1946 through 1964 — are between 52 and 70 years of age today.

Almost nine months after WWII ended, “the cry of the baby was heard across the land,” as historian Landon Jones described the trend.

And it continued trending; 3.4 million babies were born in 1946, 20+% more than in ’45. In 1947: another 3.8 million; in ’52: 3.9 million. And more than 4 million babies were born every year from 1954–1964 until there was a slight tapering, if you will.

By then there were more than 76.4 million “baby boomers” in the United States, nearly 40% of the nation’s population. The historical phenomenon was more an explosion than a boom.

Boomers are linked to a redefinition of traditional values and are associated with privilege as many grew up in an era of far-reaching government subsidies in post-war housing and education as well as in a time of increasing affluence.

As a generational group baby boomers were the wealthiest, most active and most physically fit, far surpassing those who had preceded them. They also were among the first to grow up with the very real expectation that the world — their world actually — would improve over time.

After all, they were generating unprecedented levels of income and therefore could reap unprecedented and abundant reward in the form of food, housing, apparel, retirement programs and what has been described by some as the fruits of overindulgent consumerism.

Boomers thought of themselves as different and special; they were effecting change and this came to define their self-perception.

Further setting apart baby boomers, the size of the group notwithstanding — the tally rose to 77.3 million American babies born between ’46 and ‘64 — was the attention and scrutiny they engendered and received.

Steve Gillon, author of Boomer Nation: The Largest and Richest Generation Ever, and How It Changed America (Free Press, 2004) notes that “almost from the time they were conceived, Boomers were dissected, analyzed and pitched to by modern marketers who reinforced a sense of generational distinctiveness.”

This claim is buttressed by a number of articles written in the late-40’s characterizing the ever-increasing number of births as an economic boom including a Newsweek piece entitled, “Population: Babies Mean Business,” (August 9, 1948) and one from Time, “Baby Boom” (February 9, 1948).

It is believed that baby boomers today control more than 80% of personal financial assets and are responsible for more than half of all consumer spending, including 80% of all leisure travel. They also buy 77% of all prescription drugs and 61% of all over-the-counter drugs sold.

Well, it’s over for “Baby Boomers.”

Not because they have already lived more than half of their lives.

Not because as a generation they have had their day in the sun, such as it was.

Not because that by midcentury the Boomer population is projected to dwindle to 16.6 million.

And not because they have been supplanted by the younger last-wave segment of their own demographic cohort or by Generation Xers and then Millennials — who now outnumber Boomers incidentally — just as the Boomers replaced the Silent Generation (Born: 1928-’45) which in turn replaced the Greatest Generation (Born: Before 1928).

Rather, it is over because the American Dream is over — for them.

There is no American Dream for Baby Boomers.

They are retiring later with less money than they expected, not surprising in an era of shrinking benefits. They are looking their golden years straight in the eye with bitterness and a sense of foreboding.

In too many instances they will not “do better” than their parents — a key component of American Dream philosophy — many of whom retired at 55 with healthy pensions, poised to buy a second home or to move to warmer climes.

A debt-free comfortable retirement for many will no longer be in reach. They will continue to work largely so as to generate income; to get by.

Seven in ten of America’s middle-income Boomers take a dim view of the prospect that they will have enough money to live comfortably to age 85. Eight in ten still shoulder debt and almost one-quarter hold mortgages with more than 20 years remaining on them.

Alicia Munnell, director of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, shares this despondence. “The question is whether you have enough to sustain your standard of living over a long period of time. And I think the answer is no.”

In 1989, about 30% of Americans would have reluctantly agreed; in 2013 that figure jumped to 52%. This according to a National Retirement Risk Index which measures the economic prospects of retirees.

By 2030, a little more than thirteen years from now, one in five Americans will be 65 years of age or older. Pundits/experts believe that this demographic certainty will place an undue if not insurmountable strain upon our social welfare systems.

Old news? Yes.

Likely? Unclear.

Regardless, Casey Dowd of FoxBusiness reports that “according to a new survey, 70% of non-retired Americans plan to work as long as possible during retirement…[for whatever reasons] it is becoming a new normal…but this isn’t necessarily bad news.”

Jill Cornfield, a retirement analyst observes that, “the baby boomers are now hitting their retirement stride, and their attitude is unlike that of previous generations. One boomer told me that it’s easier to work at a second career or vocation when your friends are still working. The baby boomers don’t see themselves as old, she said, and they see retirement differently than their parents did. When they were young, they felt they were changing the world — and they still want to do that.”

Financial benefits aside, retirement experts note that working beyond retirement age keeps you sharp both mentally and physically.

And previous generations expected to enjoy but 10 or 15 years of retirement; rising life expectancy rates translate into at least twice as much retirement time today.

Money must come in.

But work in retirement does not necessarily become an extension of the same old grind. There can be more freedom and flexibility allowing for travel, hobbies and just plain time that heretofore had been at such a premium. Intellectual and social engagement can be rekindled.

All of this helps stave off the inevitability of senescence if just a smidgen.

And to those who enjoy living and life, that’s a very good thing.

So it’s not all doom and gloom for Baby Boomers in spite of the shifting dynamics and kaleidoscopic paradigm of our history’s American Dream.

And perhaps they can slough off the cutting accusations that they soaked up a lot of economic opportunity without bothering to preserve much for the generations to come.

Boomers are castigated for having smashed to smithereens the tradition of being good ancestors. They are chastised for leaving their children and grandchildren worse off: unable to afford college or buy a house, tethered to rising national debt and global temperatures and seemingly unwilling to acknowledge their role in any or all of this.

Every year it appears that more people are starting to view life without any kind of work in it at all, as less and less appealing. And this is healthy on many levels.

For Boomers, nearly half of whom are either “very” or “somewhat” worried about outliving their assets in retirement according to Bankrate’s recent Money Pulse survey, the opportunity to continue chasing the dream remains alive.

[Editor’s Note: This piece was written by Mr. Kaplan in November 2016.]


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