The 3 Factors That Are Absolutely Essential to Achieving the American Dream

Family taking Christmas picture

A family taking a Christmas picture | halfpoint/iStock/Getty Images

  • New data from Pew Research shows that many Americans feel the “American Dream” is out of reach.
  • A majority of those asked feel that three main things are essential.
  • There are other factors at play, but we could be seeing the end of the “American Dream” as we once knew it.

You’ve heard it before: The “American dream” is in trouble. While you’re bound to run into dueling definitions as to what the term refers to, in a general sense, it means having control over one’s own destiny. Having the ability to sink or swim according to one’s own ability — to buy a home, start a family, and retire happy. We like to think that this should be a default position for the average American, but it’s not always the case.

All of the talk surrounding the death of the American dream? It’s meant to convey that a lot of people are struggling, despite record stock market performances and low unemployment. The fact is that the average American is struggling. People are seeing their earnings eaten up by inflation and higher costs of living. They can’t or won’t save for retirement. The dream, for a lot of these people, is dead.

That’s not to say everyone feels that way, though. In fact, a majority of Americans still believe in the American dream. But achieving it is another story.

New data from Pew Research Center provides a look at how the American public feels about that dream, and what it takes to get there. Amazingly, a majority of Americans actually agreed on three primary factors required to achieve it — remarkable in such a divisive time. We’ll get to those factors (and more), but first: How many of us think the dream is actually dead?

First: How many people feel that their dreams are dead?

17% of America believes the American Dream is out of reach

Dog walking with baby stroller

Some people think the American Dream is out of reach. | Halfpoint/iStock/Getty Images

  • Nearly one-fifth of Americans don’t think “the dream” is even possible anymore.

If you’re one of the people who thinks “the dream” is out of reach, it may be comforting to realize that you’re in the minority. According to Pew’s data, only 17% of Americans believe the American dream is “out of reach” for their family. Conversely, 36% believe they have already achieved it, and 46% believe they’re on their way. A pessimist might say these people are being way too optimistic — but optimism in and of itself is typically a big boost in achieving any type of goal.

Next: The first of the big three factors.

The essential factors: 1. Retiring comfortably

retiree

Nearly two-thirds of people said being able to retire comfortable was part of the American dream. | Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

  • 60% of respondents said that this was an “essential” factor in achieving the American dream.

As for the big three factors that a majority of Americans agree on? The first is the ability to retire comfortably. 60% of respondents said this was “essential”, while 36% said it was “important, but not essential”. And yes, there were some who said it wasn’t important — 3%. It does, though, seem that the “dream” and a comfortable retirement are one in the same, or at least go hand-in-hand. For a small number of people, apparently, there’s apparently a difference.

Next: The importance of family

2. Having a good family life

Grandmother cooking with granddaughter, rest of family talks in background

A family making a meal | David Sacks/Getty Images

  • 70% of Pew’s respondents said a good family life is essential.

The second of our big three? A good family life. Some people, unfortunately, may not have much control over their family life — to an extent, anyway. But obviously, having a good home life can make everything else much easier. You can depend on and take care of each other, and when push comes to shove financially, you may even have a bit of a safety net. But again, you and your family may not see eye to eye or have cultural differences that might make things more difficult.

Next: Freedom

3. Freedom of choice in how to live

live how you want

You can’t achieve the American Dream without freedom, people told Pew. | g-stockstudio/iStock/Getty Images Plus

  • An element of freedom was labeled as essential by 77% of respondents.

The last of the big three — “freedom of choice in how to live”. This makes a lot of sense as it’d be hard to live the “dream” without doing it in the way that you want. And really, this is the most “American” element of all — freedom. It also goes back to our original definition, the freedom to sink or swim based on your own merits. You have the freedom to swing for the fences, or play it safe. It’s up to you. Naturally, it’s an important element in the “dream” equation.

Next: Money enters the picture.

What about money?

Hundred dollar bills money

Getting those Benjamins | SARINYAPINNGAM/iStock/Getty Images

  • Per the survey, only 11% said “become wealthy” was essential to the American dream.

While money and finances weren’t among the top three elements singled out by the Pew data, we need to mention it. You’re not going to retire or be able to live comfortably without it, after all. And interestingly enough, only 11% of respondents said that wealth was essential to achieving the dream. That makes sense, again, as the “dream” differs from person to person. We don’t all have to be billionaires to be happy — probably just have enough for the occasional vacation.

Next: Does a successful career play a role?

How about career success?

A woman prepares for an interview

A woman prepares for an interview | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

  • 43% said having a successful career was also essential.

Wealth and a successful career often go hand-in-hand. For that reason, we’re going to touch on career success as it relates to the Pew survey data. All told, 43% of respondents said having a successful career was essential to achieving the dream, while 50% said it was important, but not essential. Yet again, this is something that will vary from person to person and family to family.

Finally: Is the American dream dead?

The American dream: A relic of the past?

A man shoves a twenty in his pocket

A man shoves a twenty in his pocket | iStock.com

  • The American dream may take a different shape for new generations.

One thing we’ll have to consider as the economy evolves is whether the American dream, as we commonly know it, will cease to be. Imagine what it meant to a family 50 years ago — and now, what it means to you. It may be the same, or something completely different. Fifty years ago, it may have meant a nice house, two-car garage, and that white picket fence. Today, it could mean a van and endless travel. In 20 years, it may mean having enough robot servants around that you’ll never break a sweat again.

We simply don’t know. But for the time being, achieving the dream appears to be within most people’s grasp — or, at least they think it is.

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