The fundamentals of the American Dream have remained extraordinarily consistent through the years. From the mystique of the frontier era to the realities of the present day, the essential message has always been that opportunities are there to be seized, that hard work can bring just reward and that success and prosperity are within the reach of anyone prepared to stretch for them – provided, of course, that they do their stretching in the USA.

Despite George Carlin’s celebrated quip – “It’s called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it” – this notion of well-earned progress has seldom been interpreted as unreal or imaginary. The Dream is aspirational in the purest sense. It’s not something we’re expected to fantasize about and then forget, as we might a million other dreams. It’s something to be accomplished, made flesh, grabbed with both hands. It’s not ephemeral. It’s an ethos.

As if by way of additional enticement, the Dream has often been lassoed to another potent image of ambition and endeavour: the City on a Hill. This, too, entered the American lexicon early in the nation’s history and has since trodden an ever-finer line between inspirational tenet and tired trope. The two concepts, as assorted politicians and their speechwriters have been quick to recognise, dovetail with pleasing neatness: the Dream encourages an upward trajectory, while the City on a Hill indicates where the ascent might lead.

Ronald Reagan famously referenced “a shining city on a hill” on the eve of his election in 1980. Nine years later, as he left office, he pointedly aligned it with the Dream when he said: “I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. In my mind it was a tall, proud city, built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace… And if there had to be city walls then the walls had doors… and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.”

For me, an American who has lived in the UK for more than 35 years, these words paint a particularly powerful picture. Observed through the prism of the Reagan presidency, they might be regarded as a classic illustration of American exceptionalism. From a more sympathetic and modern-day perspective, they could be construed as an epic rallying cry for diversity and inclusion. However we choose to decipher them, let’s keep them in mind. We’ll come back to them.

We tend to use clichés without thinking about what they actually mean. The American Dream is habitually treated with the same carelessness. Anything that manages to stick around for centuries, irrespective of how supposedly cherished it might be, inevitably finds itself at risk of being taken lightly: we concentrate on the straightforward elements, the components that resonate with us, and decline to grapple with the contradictions and the conflicts. The Dream has been central to the fabric of American life for so long that we usually begin to question it only if it starts to unravel.

That the stitches occasionally come undone hasn’t gone unnoticed. Authors and academics alike have regularly explored the unhappy consequences. Capturing the nascent gloom of the period, The Great Gatsby portrayed the crystallisation and subsequent shattering of the Dream. Of Mice and Men dared to depict the Dream as a cruel myth. Death of a Salesman cast the pursuit of the Dream as an act of devastating futility. Drawing on opinion polls and other barometers of public sentiment, numerous studies have suggested confidence in the Dream is far from unwavering.

Yet the grand narrative somehow goes on. The Dream may be under attack and in dispute; it may be in the process of being reshaped like never before, especially under the aegis of the Trump administration; but it’s still there. No matter how many death notices are served on it, it survives. It still has significance. It still has a purpose. In spite of everything, the Dream refuses to die.

Conscious of this remarkable resilience, I recently returned to the US to try to find out what the Dream means to those who might be said to have achieved it. With all of my research respondents aged in their 70s or 80s, I hoped to learn how individual perceptions of the Dream may have shifted over time; I also hoped to hear some thoughts on how and why the Dream has endured and who benefits most from its continued presence at the very heart of the American story.

I deliberately focused on a community in some ways uncannily consonant with Reagan’s beloved City on a Hill: a gated, upscale development whose unmistakable air of security, attainment and material wealth would surely chime with many people’s idea of the rewards awaiting those who clamber to the top. Bathed in sun-kissed iridescence, the place shines; its residents live in peace; and, sure enough, this City on a Hill has walls.

If the origins of the American Dream can be traced back to the frontier era, as is customarily posited and widely accepted, an important distinction between then and now needs to be conceded. By and large, every pioneer had to cover much the same ground in striving for the Dream; today, with no frontiers left for collective conquest and with inequality an undeniable characteristic of our society, some Dreamers embark on the climb up to the City on a Hill from a notably lower base camp than others.

This much was clear even from my limited study sample. Many respondents had inherited the fully realized Dream from their parents; some had reached the peak via a comparatively short route; and others had scaled the heights from further down. Accordingly, opinions of the Dream and its relevance varied considerably. Some saw the Dream in terms of financial wellbeing and luxury; some found it in friendships, relationships and connections; some equated it with freedom, autonomy and choice; some associated it with esteem and repute; some framed it as a precious gift to one’s children; and some dismissed it as a corollary of established privilege and, by extension, blind luck.

Interestingly, notwithstanding these fragmented views, the Dream retained a curious capacity to supply a kind of comfort to almost all – not through the medium of possessions, riches, frills and superfluities but in the lingering sense of simply being part of something good, something right. It ameliorated the guilt of those born at altitude, reassuring them that those less fortunate – as long as they applied themselves, got an education and received support from the right social systems – could one day join them in the City on a Hill. It empowered those who rose from more modest circumstances, rendering them living proof of the magnificent possibilities of social mobility.

This cure-all quality has been absolutely pivotal to the Dream’s longevity. You name it – status, fate, journey, plight – and the Dream can justify it. It gives the people at the pinnacle a reason to feel good about their country and less bad about their pre-eminence; and it gives the people at the bottom a reason to feel good about their country and less bad about their struggles. In this regard it always has been – and still is – perhaps the greatest marketing triumph in the annals of America.

Today, needless to say, it’s marketed a little differently. Many of those I interviewed, when pressed, admitted both its allure and its applicability have diminished. One respondent spoke wistfully of being part of a “generation with a plan.” For her grandchildren, though, it’s tough to discern what the plan might be. The time-honored ideal of everyone and anyone – “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses” – at least having a chance to climb the hill is difficult to square with a policymaking stance that increasingly prevents many from even seeing the hill. Strictly speaking, the American Dream and “America first” aren’t natural bedfellows. And yet those unshakable fundamentals – opportunity, hard work, reward, success – still mean something, still strike a chord, even as the flame of the Dream’s cultural salience flickers in the winds of change.

In Strangers in Their Own Land, her acclaimed analysis of the mindset of Trump supporters in the run-up to the 2016 election, Arlie Russell Hochschild burrows more deeply into the underpinning notion of well-earned progress to explain the American Dream’s role in recent political events. Echoing a linchpin of the prevailing imagery, she portrays the Dream as lying beyond the brow of a hill.

Hochschild’s Dreamers patiently wait in an enormous line, hoping to edge towards and over the crest. But despite their efforts and even their sacrifices, progress doesn’t come.  Eventually, when they intuit that the line has stopped advancing – or, worse still, when they suspect others who are less deserving have been allowed to cut in ahead of them – they look to “feel American in some new way.” They despise the queue-jumpers. They despise the queue-jumpers’ allies in government. And they vote for Trump.

In this scenario, as Trump appreciated and exploited to the full, the disaffected blame “others.” Most of the targets of their ire are the Dream’s former poster children – immigrants, refugees, women – yet the one thing that typically escapes their wrath and resentment, crucially, is the Dream itself. Similarly, many Dreamers blame only themselves when they finally discover their march up to the City on a Hill has been conducted on Penrose stairs. They lament that the Dream was there to be grasped and that they alone, because of a misstep or a miscalculation or a lack of determination, contrived to turn the promise of social mobility into the stuff of an MC Escher lithograph.

This, again, is the Dream as an unquestioned cliché. If the grand narrative doesn’t quite fit any more, then we just figure something went wrong in the telling. We hold on to what we understand, what we’ve heard and absorbed, what we’ve been told, what we’ve dutifully assimilated, and close our eyes to the rest. We cling to the precious cornerstones and ignore the centuries’ worth of inconsistencies that have gathered around them. We ascribe failure to others or to ourselves. We curse the distorting effect of affirmative action or the crushing influence of our own shortcomings.

What we never do is ask whether the entire shebang really is rooted in the fanciful and the far-fetched. We never seriously contemplate the likelihood of Nick Carraway, George Milton, Lennie Small and Willy Loman representing the rule rather than the exception. We never wonder whether graft and grit, for all the nobility attached to them, may be no match whatsoever for privilege and blind luck. And we never, ever entertain the horrible prospect that the City on a Hill, instead of crowning the heroic ascent to success and prosperity, might in truth be the supreme symbol of a system whose principal aim is to keep people firmly in their place.

A couple of my study respondents condemned the Dream as a cynical mechanism that fools us into chasing an all-consuming, frequently elusive and arguably unobtainable goal. Surveying the scene from the summit, was he able to dissect the bigger picture with a clarity sadly unfamiliar to those below? Seen in this way, the Dream is intended to send us staggering towards the City on a Hill with such single-mindedness, such self-discipline, such faith, that we barely notice we aren’t moving – less still pause to ask why. We keep grafting, no matter how ephemeral that hill might appear. The Dream is intuitively appealing, apparently obvious, and seemingly incontestable.  Nobody could sincerely claim this was the objective from the outset. It was in no-one’s interests, for example, for the pioneers to thrash around in circles and get nowhere. But is it conceivable that this is what the Dream, whether by design or default, has gradually become?

Let’s return, as promised, to Reagan’s farewell address. How does his stirring vision stack up in 2017, with Trump in the White House, the line to that distant brow grinding to a halt and alleged queue-jumpers openly reviled by huge swathes of the voting public? The Great Communicator’s valedictory may well have been offered as some sort of passionate paean to diversity and inclusion; it may even have been not just earnest but pertinent; but now, on balance, it appears woefully inaccurate and faintly ridiculous.

You will recall that the City on a Hill I visited is reminiscent of Reagan’s shimmering utopia in three ways: it shines, it’s peaceful, and it has walls. I think the last of these attributes is by far the most revealing because the fact is that the doors within those walls are “open to anyone” only for as long as the swimming pools need cleaning or the oleander trees need trimming.

Depressingly, much the same might now be said of the US as a whole. Having “the heart and will to get here” is one thing; being granted entry by armed guards is another altogether. The emerging lesson seems to be that everyone is free to dream the Dream but that any expectations of fulfilling it should be suitably tempered, if not completely abandoned. The Dream’s job isn’t to deliver: it’s to sustain and to maintain, serving the interests of some, but not of others.

None of this is to say the Dream is dead ­– far from it – yet we have to acknowledge that it’s in a mess. To pretend otherwise would be deluded. Teetering on the precipice that separates convenient vagueness from outright meaninglessness, the Dream is becoming harder to define – and even harder to live – in an age when diversity is at the mercy of division and inclusion is in grave danger of surrendering to its diametric opposite. Whether we’re unduly positive or uncommonly pessimistic, devoted or duped, replete with pioneer spirit or bereft of hope, we desperately need to reflect on where the American Dream is heading and what we might do to steer it in a more fruitful direction. Forget having to be asleep to believe in it. We have to wake up to save it.

Featured image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

About The Author

Profile photo of Laurie

Laurie Cohen is Professor of Work and Organisation. She joined NUBS in September 2012, having previously worked for many years in the School of Business & Economics at Loughborough University. Since coming to Nottingham she has led the redesign of the undergraduate Management programme, and is currently Head of Professional Practice.

Professor Cohen’s doctoral research focused on women’s career transitions from employment to self-employment. Her interests emerging from that include changing careers, careers in emerging forms of organization, and research methods in the study of career, focusing in particular on interpretive approaches and the use of narrative. For many years she has also been involved in a series of studies into perceptions and enactment of management in professional organizations focusing mainly on scientific research establishments. Professor Cohen is currently involved in research projects into public sector careers in the wake of austerity, and into gender equality in university research. Her work has been supported through a series of grants from the Economic and Social Research Council, the British Academy and the Nottingham/Birmingham Collaboration Fund. Professor Cohen has published widely and is on the editorial boards of Journal of Vocational Behavior, Management Learning, Journal of Professions and Organization, and Management Inquiry. Her research monograph, Imagining Women’s Careers, was published by Oxford University Press in September, 2014. This has led to an appearance on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Women’s Hour’ and to numerous articles in the press.

Professor Cohen has taught across the spectrum of years and programmes, including undergraduate and postgraduate taught and research programmes, and she has supervised over 10 PhD students to completion.

In addition to her Nottingham role, Professor Cohen is Visiting Professor at the Lund University School of Economics and Management.