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What the American dream looked like the decade you were born

From the white-picket-fence ideals of the 40s to the materialism of today, how has the American Dream changed?

How the American dream has changed


By Frances Carruthers, Lovemoney

The phrase 'American Dream' was officially coined just under 90 years ago in a book called The Epic of America by James Truslow Adams. He argued it was "that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement." With that in mind, click ahead to see what the American Dream has looked like in every decade since the 1940s.


1940s: Rebuilding the nation


The American Dream in the 1940s was about establishing stability after a tough couple of decades, which generally included a house in the suburbs, a steady job and a solid family unit. Until Roosevelt’s 1934 Housing Act owning a home was out of reach for most Americans – even those in the middle class rented – and the new policy aimed to increase home ownership during the depression.


1940s: Rebuilding the nation


In fact, expectations changed completely. People who’d survived tough years of a depression followed by a world war found that they could quite easily get a home, a job and even a college degree thanks to Roosevelt’s policies. With the rise in suburbs such as Levittown (pictured), constructed in various locations by home builders Levitt & Sons, the “white picket fence” idea of stability and home ownership came into being. It was the decade in which standards of living rose dramatically and the culture of consumption began to gain traction. 


1940s: Rebuilding the nation


The government had been criticized for failing to support returning veterans after World War One – a mistake that President Roosevelt didn't want to repeat. The G.I. Bill of Rights promised to improve the lives of veterans by giving them access to housing, jobs, education and healthcare. “We have come to a clear realization of the fact … that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence”, said Roosevelt in an address to the nation.


1940s: Rebuilding the nation


But the Dream wasn’t accessible to all. Roosevelt’s policies, well-meaning as they were, were criticized for failing to help people of color, as just 100 out of the G.I. Bill’s first 67,000 mortgages were taken out by non-whites. Many housing developers such as William Levitt would only sell houses to white buyers – even after housing segregation had been ruled against in 1948.


1940s: Rebuilding the nation


The 1940s were the decade for women to get in on the American Dream. They were by no means limited to the home as many had gained jobs while their husbands were at war and were intent on keeping them. Jobs gave them financial independence, as well as helping to increase industrial productivity, encouraging more people to buy American-made goods.


1950s: Postwar prosperity


If the American Dream of the 40s had been all about owning a home, in the 50s it expanded to include a car. After the war, the manufacturing industry transformed from making wartime necessities to consumer goods, making car ownership more affordable. The number of registered cars leapt from 25 million in 1950 to 67 million in 1958.


1950s: Postwar prosperity


Futurism, spurred on by the space race of the late 50s, made its way into domestic life. People wanted to have the latest washing machine, refrigerator, and any new gadget that would make life easier and more convenient. Products like the vacuum cleaner and the TV dinner (pictured) promised to do just that, and advertising helped to emphasize the benefits these items would bring.


1950s: Postwar prosperity


In the 50s, no-one encapsulated the American Dream quite like Frank Sinatra. Born in New Jersey, he was the son of Sicilian immigrants and he dropped out of school to pursue his musical dreams, playing in brass bands and taking movie roles before finding solo success. In the song The House I Live In he sings: “What is America to me / The house I live in / A plot of earth, the street”.  


1950s: Postwar prosperity


As for women, the 50s brought about conflicting ideals. On one hand, many were keen to hold onto the jobs and financial independence they’d gained during the war. On the other, advertising and popular culture told them to be the perfect housewife, with many convenience products aimed at women reinforcing their position at the heart of the home.


1950s: Postwar prosperity


Not everyone was content with this rising consumerism. For writers like Jack Kerouac, whose 1957 novel On the Road expressed a dissatisfaction with the blandness of middle-class life in America, there was a need to look elsewhere for fulfilment. The beat generation was born, rejecting standard culture and materialism in search of spirituality and exploration.


1960s: Making the dream available to all


The 60s heralded further prosperity, with family incomes rising across the board, a growing economy and increased consumption of goods. Yet it was also a decade in which the American Dream was transformed: traditional ideals centered around the home and family were superseded by broader movements for freedom, peace and equality for the younger generation.


1960s: Making the dream available to all


She may have tragically died in August 1962, but in the early 60s Marilyn Monroe epitomized the American Dream. As a child, she’d had a turbulent upbringing and lived in foster care, before working in a factory for a short while, where she was discovered by a photographer. She quickly rose to fame and found success as a model and actress, symbolizing the ultimate rags-to-riches story.


1960s: Making the dream available to all


The American Dream had long been criticized for being exclusive to the white middle-classes – something which civil rights activists were intent on changing. In Martin Luther King Jr.’s iconic speech in 1963, he said, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.'” A year later, when the Civil Rights Act was passed and racial segregation was made illegal, that dream came within closer reach for many Americans.


1960s: Making the dream available to all


With almost half of the population under the age of 18 in 1960, young people changed the face of the American Dream. Hippie culture, with a focus on spirituality, peace and love, gave it a more progressive agenda, with many people taking to the streets to protest American troops’ involvement in the Vietnam war in the late 60s.


1960s: Making the dream available to all


Walmart was one of the big success stories of the decade. Starting out with a five-and-dime store in Newport, Arkansas, founder Sam Walton took his retail operation national, cutting off his former business partners and going it alone to create Walmart. The risk paid off, as two decades later Walmart reached $1 billion (£768m) in sales.


1970s: Personal wealth and progress


At the beginning of the 70s, one invention was set to change the world: the jumbo jet. Promising to make flying more widespread, the Boeing 747 had its first commercial flight on 15 January 1970, from New York to London. This paved the way for a decade in which the American Dream which would become increasingly associated with technology, progress and personal wealth.


1970s: Personal wealth and progress


The Watergate Scandal of 1972 was one of the biggest political scandals of the century. Burglars were caught in Democratic offices stealing documents for President Richard Nixon and, two years later, despite Nixon’s arduous cover-up attempts, he finally confessed his involvement and stepped down. This sowed the seeds for a growing mistrust of government and authorities that would transform the face of the American Dream.


1970s: Personal wealth and progress


Walt Disney may have passed away in 1966 but the 70s was the decade that his vision really took shape, with the opening of the hugely successful Walt Disney World in Florida in 1971. The entrepreneur was known for his spirit of innovation and his resorts glorified small-town American values, trading in a nostalgia for the white-picket-fence ideal that had reigned supreme in the 40s and 50s and which had subsequently become diluted in the decades that followed.


1970s: Personal wealth and progress


For every decade that the American Dream found its place in popular culture, there were plenty of commentators who criticized it. In 1971, Hunter S Thompson published Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey into the Heart of the American Dream, a novel which gives a disparaging view of hippie counterculture and declares the decline of the American Dream in the face of greed and excess. Which leads us to the next decade...


1980s: An age of excess


In the 80s, technology played an increasingly large role in the American Dream. The release of the first Macintosh computer in 1984 paved the way for a new era where people wanted the latest tech for their home, and consumer spending took off as baby-boomers hit their highest earning years. But this culture drove people to spend more than they earned: household debt went from 48% of GDP in 1980 to 59% of GDP in 1990 – an upward trajectory that would continue until the recession of 2008.


1980s: An age of excess


Celebrities became icons for new ideals of wealth and excess, earning multi-million-dollar incomes and splashing the cash with extravagant purchases. Mike Tyson is a prime example: the boxer rose to meteoric success in the mid-80s, leading to enormous media attention which was coined “Tyson-mania”, and buying everything from gold cars to his own personal white tigers.


1980s: An age of excess


“I went to New York. I had a dream. I wanted to be a big star… I worked really hard and my dream came true”. Those were the words of Madonna on her 1985 Like A Virgin tour, which reflects how the American Dream was still focused on how hard work could bring success. From moving to New York with little more than a few dollars to becoming an international pop sensation, Madonna’s story reinforced the notion that determination and persistence could make dreams come true.


1980s: An age of excess


Movies from the decade gave us a more satirical view of the current version of the American Dream – most memorably the 1987 hit movie Wall Street with its memorable mantra of "Greed is good". Meanwhile, college enrollment was on the up, increasing by about 1.71 million between 1980 and 1990, bringing with it a new set of ambitions for young people: abandoning small-town life for the big city and living like the characters in hit movies and TV shows.


1990s: Transformed by technology


This city living dream continued into the 90s. The year 1994 saw the iconic sitcom Friends hit TV screens where the 20-something characters of the hit show live in rented apartments in Manhattan, reflecting the rising popularity of city living for young people migrating in search of better prospects. 


1990s: Transformed by technology


The previous decade might have given rise to cynicism, but belief in the American Dream wasn’t dead yet. The 90s revived hope and much of that came from popular culture. For example, Michael Jordan, the most successful basketball player in history, achieved amazing popularity, going on to gain film roles, brand endorsements and legendary status.


1990s: Transformed by technology


In business, Silicon Valley was the place to be. The birth of the World Wide Web and rise in internet investments in the late 90s, known as the “dotcom bubble”, marked the point when tech entrepreneurs became billionaires. The American Dream was reborn: computer geeks could get rich seemingly overnight, with the likes of Bill Gates (pictured, right) and Steve Jobs becoming the poster boys for Silicon Valley success.


1990s: Transformed by technology


The world's first text (SMS) message was sent in 1992, marking a turning point in how we communicate. In the late 90s, phone ownership rocketed as new and more advanced models were released, such as the Nokia 9000 (pictured), released in 1996, which was the first to include (limited) internet access. Having a mobile phone became a status symbol and was the sign of a new, tech-driven American Dream.


1990s: Transformed by technology


A record-breaking TV series, Sex and the City defined the American Dream for many young women in the late 90s. It told the story of four friends living in New York, who had successful careers, frequented the hottest bars and restaurants, made questionable decisions about men, and gossiped about it all with their girlfriends. Above all, it represented a moment when the American Dream was defined for younger people by independence and a break away from family life. 


2000s: Changing hopes and aspirations


In the 00s, the American Dream was divided along generational fault lines. While baby boomers had reached peaks in their careers, it wasn’t quite the same for young people, as middle-class jobs disappeared during the recession of 2008 and many bounced from one low-paid job to the next. Reality TV such as Keeping up with the Kardashians became huge in this decade, perhaps because it sold a dream that anyone could “make it” by having a big personality, looking good or entertaining people.


2000s: Changing hopes and aspirations


Oprah Winfrey’s is the ultimate rags-to-riches story of the decade. Born to a teenage mother and raised by her grandmother on a small Mississippi farm, she had a turbulent childhood but did well at school, before securing a slot on local radio. Her first TV show, People Are Talking, was a hit and paved the way for The Oprah Winfrey Show. Becoming the first black billionaire in 2003, she was an embodiment of the values of hard work and equal opportunity that underscored the older American Dream. 


2000s: Changing hopes and aspirations


A second dotcom boom made Silicon Valley's next wave of entrepreneurs very rich. Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook along with friends from Harvard in 2004, and the idea immediately took off. Not only did Zuckerberg become the world’s youngest self-made billionaire four years later at the age of 23, but Facebook paved the way for a new age of social media. 


2000s: Changing hopes and aspirations


On 4 November 2008 history was made when Barack Obama was elected as the first African-American US president. In his victory speech he said: “If there’s anyone out there who doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time… tonight is your answer”.


Today: No single American Dream?


Yet for many people the financial crisis of the late 00s was the tipping point which saw the American Dream become polarized, in the same way that politics was about to. For younger people in particular it has now become more about saving money than spending it, focusing on meaningful contributions to society and protecting the environment. At the other end of the spectrum were the millions of older Americans who have succeeded financially and found themselves very well off thanks to rising real estate prices and savings, reinforcing the ideals of the American Dream of their youth.


Today: No single American Dream?


Despite changing ideals, successful entrepreneurs continue to become extraordinarily wealthy. Jeff Bezos, currently the world’s richest man according to Forbes, started out with an online bookstore and quickly revolutionized the way we shop. If you want to get rich and you have the right idea, Silicon Valley remains the place to be.


Today: No single American Dream?


Yet there’s also a rising tide of philanthropy among the world's richest people in a post-recession era where excessive wealth is coming into question. The Giving Pledge, set up by Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett in 2010, has gained 190 signatures from the super-rich, agreeing to give away large chunks of their fortunes. 


Today: No single American Dream?


For some today the American Dream means a chance for fame and celebrity, while for others it means succeeding through the old adage of family values and hard work. Still others believe that the American Dream just represents a world closed to all but the elite with their wealth and contacts, as illustrated by the current college admissions scandal. Meanwhile, surveys have found that almost half of all millennials believe the American Dream is dead. In an ever-changing country, the idea of what the American Dream means to different people is changing too.

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What the American dream looked like the decade you were born
From the white-picket-fence ideals of the 40s to the materialism of today, how has the American Dream changed?
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