The American Dream Through the Years

A 20th century breakdown of what the American dream has been and will be.


By Payton Huckleberry | USA

What is the American Dream? Some would say a better life, material possessions, fame and fortune, etc. The American Dream has been all of these things, changing with the time itself. The society of a certain time period is the driving force behind the American Dream.


The American Dream at the turn of the century was all about “striking it rich,” or getting ahead financially. After the economic “boom” due to the oil industry, everyday Americans went back to the same mentality that swept the nation during the gold rush, that anyone in America can become rich beyond their wildest dreams. The idea of “rags-to-riches” being in full force here, and people such as the Kennedy’s, the Roosevelt’s, Henry Ford, the Dodge brothers, and others became very prominent in the world of business, despite starting out at the bottom.

The culture of the time also symbolizes the American Dream, with literary work such as The Great Gatsby. Many turned to illicit behavior in order to fulfill their American Dream, prohibition led to organized crime, which led to the rise of gangsters like Al Capone. All of these factors led to a time of economic prosperity throughout the early 20th century, and then it all came crashing down.


When the Great Depression struck in the 1930’s, the entire landscape of America, and with it the American Dream, changed for the worse. The American Dream of the 1930’s was stability. For once, and probably the only time in American history, the American Dream was not about moving ahead in life, or building a better life. Rather, it was about staying where you’re at. The rich weren’t vying to get richer, they were trying to protect their wealth and their livelihood. The middle class was nonexistent and the lower class seemed to keep falling lower. Nobody was immune to the effects of the depression.

The biggest movie of the decade, and perhaps history, Citizen Kane, was very symbolic of the time period, where the very rich main character tried to secure his livelihood, in which he ended up losing everything. The 1930’s were very depressing for the American people, and their Dream showed it.


During World War II the American Dream was all about unity, people were more worried about the country as a whole than their individual lives. After the war, the American economy was growing, and America had lifted itself out of the depression. The American Dream during this time was family life. When the greatest generation came home from WWII, they were focused on creating a great life for there families, fresh off from fighting the most evil human in history, America was grateful that they had the way of life they did. The idea of the perfect “Nuclear Family” took hold in this era. However, the beginnings of feminism were also taking root after the war. When the men were away fighting the war, the women worked in the factories, causing a mindset change in the women of America.

The 1940’s and ‘50’s were the eras of American pride and the platonic family. The television in the 1950’s, with shows like I Love Lucy! and The Andy Griffith Show were symbolizing the idea perfectly.


The Dream of the ‘60’s was peace, equality, and liberty. America was going through many changes during the 1960’s; chief among these changes was the Civil Rights Movement, free love, and feminism. The war in Vietnam sparked protests throughout the US The children of the greatest generation were less concerned with national pride, and more concerned with the individual person. Whites and blacks, men and women, straights and gays, all fighting for equality and freedom for everyone. They were anti-society and supported the individual’s rights to choose how to live their lives. The music of this era, notably Bob Dylan, CCR, and The Beatles symbolized the mindset of the time. The song The Times They Are A-Changin’ by Bob Dylan is a perfect example of the American Dream of this generation.


The value of materialist possession is seen in the American Dream of the 1980’s where pop music was born, the clothes were fabulous, and people were vying for fame and fortune. For the first time in American history, the American Dream was not about having a fulfilling life, rather about getting famous and having the more stuff than your neighbor. The people weren’t necessarily selfish, materialistic possessions were how your value in society was determined. If you didn’t have the best sneakers or the most fantastic hair, you were looked down on. The movies of the time, like The Breakfast Club, She’s All That, and St. Elmo’s Fire showed the value of materialism, as all of them had a character who was seen as lower than the rest based on how they dressed or how much stuff they had. The ‘80’s were all about standing out, and this can be easily seen in the fashion of the time, where neon and bright colors were standard.


The American Dream of the 1990’s was a more technologically developed and sophisticated version of the decades before it. The Dream of the time was all about social status and materialism. In simple terms, the more you had, the higher social relevance you held, the higher the social relevance, the better the life. At least, that was the idea. The people of the time cared less about fame than the people of the ‘80’s, they instead wanted a high status in their selective social group. Personal computers, early cell phones, televisions, video games, and other technological advances were the measure of success. Only successful people could afford these things, therefore the more you had the more successful you were. The American Dream became arguably less of a Dream for America and more of a Dream for materials.


After 9/11, the American Dream became about National Pride again, an increase in military support and patriotism were the effects of the Dream. People cared less about materialism, although it was still there, and more about the people of this country as a whole Americans banded together despite race, religion, and political affiliation and united against a common enemy for the first time since World War 2. War fever was running rampant as Americans, in their newly found patriotic values, cried for revenge for 9/11. The increase in patriotism led to a more powerful federal government. The TSA, NSA, and U.S.A P.A.T.R.I.O.T Act all came out of this era. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were also directly caused by this newfound patriotism.


So far the current decade’s personal American Dream is hard to pin down. The best summary of our Dream is individual independence. People want to be self-sufficient men and women alike no longer are searching for that perfect family, and they care less about interpersonal romantic relationships. The rise of casual sex and less meaningful relationships can be seen as a result of the change in the Dream. Materialism also is coming back but in a different way. Society cares less about what you have or how much of it you have, more how you use it. Technology is readily available to everyone, and social media is the perfect example.

The American Dreams

There has never, and possibly will never, be one American Dream. The closest we can come in unison with one common mentality is based entirely on the society of the time. There are, of course, outliers to this. For example, the dream of the previous generation may not always end abruptly, but rather die slowly with the people themselves. Many people to this die are fighting with the same dream they carried during the ‘60’s and’70’s, free love, and equality. However, society is the driving factor in the interpretation of the American Dream.


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