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Jeremycw1's avatar

1920's perception of American dream vs. present day?

Asked by Jeremycw1 (1367 points ) April 20th, 2011

Has the idea of the “American dream” changed since the 1920’s?
If so, in what ways?
I would like to hear what you jellies have to say about it!

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34 Answers

marinelife's avatar

Well, what we think of as the American dream of today came from after WWII when the GIs returned and a lot of cheap housing was built.

jerv's avatar

Where the fuck is my flying car? And why can’t I vacation on Mars?

We had a lot of ideas about how the future would turn out, and it wound up nothing like we imagined. We didn’t envision two world wars or the internet. We imagined prosperity for all.

Jeruba's avatar

Homework, perchance?

GracieT's avatar

Actually I agree with @jerv about it being nothing like we imagined. Considering that we had just had WWI I really think that we would have said that we would NEVER again have a war like that. It is actually rather sad to think that in the west the rich have gotten richer and the poor poorer. It is most certainly nothing like we dreamed it would be.

Dutchess_III's avatar

20’s…the dream was of rumors of these things called “electricity, telephones, washing machines, electric stoves, refrigerators, electric irons, cars….” things that even the most poor among us have.

Jeruba's avatar

The American Dream was that anyone who was willing to work hard could have a good life, that the opportunities to get ahead were open to all, and that the good life meant a reasonable degree of prosperity, enough to give your family a secure home and a taste of the comforts that the middle class enjoyed.

For some reason, maybe because so much can be said about what has happened to that ideal, essays about the American Dream seem to be popular assignments among freshman instructors.

Dutchess_III's avatar

Well, that dream is still there @Jeruba. It’s still viable. If you’re willing to achieve it without handouts, that is.

rooeytoo's avatar

I am old but not old enough to remember the 20’s so I will tell you what I think my parents probably hoped for and what I have hoped for as well.

My dad went into business in 1929, a strange time to start but he was a worker. He had saved and had enough to carry him through the rough start up period. He worked 6 days a week and was on call on Sunday as well. He was successful and his business prospered despite the dire economic times. He bought and paid cash for our first house, that would have been around 1950 or so. He always bought used cars and paid cash. Actually he never bought anything he couldn’t pay cash for. In later years, he did have a Mastercard but paid it off every month so as not to incur interest charges. He never dabbled in the stock market, he preferred a sure thing such as certificates of deposit rather that the lure of easy money. He loved gadgets and new products. When the first wireless phones came out, he had to have one and would call me at 5 minute intervals as he walked down the street to see how far from the base station the phone would work. He loved the first VCR’s and would program it to record his favorite shows every day in case he was not home when they started. He never had a cell phone, he died before they were commonplace. That is too bad, he would have loved them. And computers, he would have spent hours on the internet, it is a shame he never had the opportunity to see my laptop.

I agree with @Jeruba about what the dream was and I agree with @Dutchess_III that it is still available to anyone who wants to work hard enough. We are surrounded by success stories, they just don’t show up on the evening news. Instead they show the ones who mortgaged and borrowed to the hilt and are now feeling the pinch badly. I think the way the dream has changed is that people expect more to be handed to them for less effort. I don’t see many who want to work the 6 days a week and long hours that my dad did.

jerv's avatar

@Dutchess_III Not nearly as viable as it used to be, and less so every day though.

Back in the 1920s, all it took for a family to thrive was a hard-working husband. Nowadays, many households cannot even survive one just one income. It used to be that when there were good, they were good for many people; now, only a select few get to share in the good times. That has lead to an increase in cynicism, apathy, pessimism, and fatalism, and that had some profound effects on any sort of dream or vision.

As for handouts, those have always been around in some way, shape, or form. See, there used to be this thing called “compassion”; something that seems to have diminished over time. I’m not saying people today are heartless, but we are generally more selfish than past generations. People used to be more willing to help each other out.

While there are still many success stories like @rooeytoo‘s dad, there are many where people tried to do the same thing, worked just as hard, did everything right, and still failed miserably, and a shitload more where despair crushed the dream entirely. For many these days, the American Dream is to merely live indoors, eat regularly, and (if you’re really, really lucky) retire instead of working until you’re dead.

@rooeytoo I’ve seen quite a few that put in that much time out of sheer necessity and were worse off than me. If there really was a correlation between how hard you worked and how much reward you reaped, I would work as hard as I used to.

rooeytoo's avatar

@jerv – we will never agree on this point. If anyone works the hours my dad did, they want double time and triple time. He worked to keep a roof over our head and food on the table. I started my own business in the 80’s and was successful and I did it without anyone’s financial help (except the bank). It can be done. My work was 7 days a week and pretty much 24 hours a day (a kennel). So I don’t really feel too sorry for anyone who complains about having to work too many hours. I however am not like my dad in that I believe in credit consequently I probably will never retire. I am 66 now and still working and probably will until I keel over. If I had chosen to live the way my dad did, it might be a different story. And that is why the world is as it is today, people don’t want to live and work the way my dad did myself included. The difference is I don’t whine about it, I just accept it is the way it must be to support the way I want to live and then get on with it.

jerv's avatar

@rooeytoo You are correct, and I think it might be a generational thing. I know that many who are young enough to be my kid bitch and moan about doing only 35–40 hours a week and I have no pity for them. A bit of contempt, actually :/. Personally, I prefer to keep it under 60 myself, but that is largely because I used to put in longer hours and had less to show for it than I do now, so I got programmed early on to feel that the returns aren’t worthwhile.

Just out of curiosity though, how do you think banks tightening up on their lending practices affects the ability to start your own business? Do you think you could’ve pulled it off nearly as easily today? How would your dream have been affected if the bank denied your loan?

rooeytoo's avatar

Well I started the business out of the basement of my house so there was no money involved there. I started as a groomer. About 6 years later I had built up a large clientele and had enough of a down payment so I could borrow to build the kennel. I know the banks are tighter now but if you go in with the right credentials you can get the loan. The kennel I built was just resold to a young handler so I guess loans are still available.

Speaking of generational things though, my husband and I were just knocked back for a mortgage because of our age, he is 70, I am 66, and because we have been mostly self employed for the last 10 or so years. That is despite the fact we have another house, paid for and valued higher than the one we were looking at. Now if we were first home buyers there is all sorts of extra help from the bank and the government. So in some areas the young have it a lot easier than we oldies. I think if you are young and willing and you can’t get it done today, you wouldn’t have been able to get it done in the 20’s either.

jerv's avatar

@rooeytoo Would you agree that things are more complicated and the world a bit darker these days? I’ve noticed more cynicism just in my lifetime. No, I don’t have a monopoly on cynicism :p

rooeytoo's avatar

@jerv – hmmmmm, more complicated, I’m not sure. I think it was pretty complicated for people during the depression when they were starving. It was pretty dark when I was in first grade or so and we had to hide under the desk when the air raid siren went off and we were afraid the big bomb was going to come.

I think each generation has its own difficulties and some things easier as well. What I do see and I am sure my dad would say the same is that people expect so much these days. There is a person here in fluther who is constantly trying to convince everyone that the government should provide you with free housing, food, medical insurance, things that years ago one simply assumed one had to provide for oneself. I have a niece who is about to graduate from medical school and some say her education should be free. Everyone wants everything given and she shouldn’t have to repay her student loans.

So I don’t know Jervie, I don’t think I can agree with you.

jerv's avatar

Maybe the 80s and 90s were just lulls then.

But I thought the bomb scares and such weren’t until a bit later anyways. There really weren’t any BIG bombs until WWII, and last I checked, WWII didn’t start until the 1930s; about a decade after the scope of this question, and a more complicated and darker time than the decade before it.

As for the other, I am not the only person who believes in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (or, the plain language version) which was drafted by an entity that didn’t exist until after WWII. Take special note of Article 25. Then again, feudal lords granted their vassals at least a hovel and enough scraps to live on; a dead servant won’t serve.

Additionally, I can see how someone may get the impression that the richest, most advanced nation on Earth should do the same things that the rest of the First World has done for decades. At this rate, we might invent fire by next year!

rooeytoo's avatar

You said things are a bit more complicated and the world darker now, I was simply pointing out that life was never particularly simple or easy, ie bombing fears or the great depression.

Well since I have not seen anyone in the USA dying of starvation lately (actually I thought there was an obesity epidemic) I guess life there isn’t too bad. And if I had vassals I would feed them, but I never saw any vassals in the USA.

Now as I said we will never come to agree on this, you think you are owed, I think I must make my own way. So this is the end of my participation. I know you like to have the last word so you will probably once again feel the need to point out the error of my thinking but I won’t respond anymore. Not because I don’t like you, just because it’s hopeless!

Jeremycw1's avatar

Wow, great answers guys :) This gives me a lot to ponder on…

jerv's avatar

@rooeytoo You know me too well, but all I really have to add is that you and I would probably be a lot closer in opinion here if the original question was about the 1930s when The Depression was actually happening.

@Jeremycw1 Happy to help :)

Dutchess_III's avatar

@jerv I know this conversation is daid, but I’ve been gone so long…You made the comment that nowadays two people HAVE to bring in an income to survive. I disagree with that. People can survive on one income, but they have to have a lower standard of living than they want. They could have a perfectly comfortable life on one income, but people today want more, more, more, more.

jerv's avatar

@Dutchess_III I like living indoors and eating without food stamps. I guess that is excessive :/

Dutchess_III's avatar

@jerv No….when I got married in 1981 we both worked at Boeing. I quit to stay home to take care of our daughter. We did fine on just my husband’s income. No, we didn’t have a big fine home, we had two mid-range cars that were paid off. We bought a small house for $45,000. I COULD have stayed working at Boeing and we would have been sitting sweet. We could have bought a $100,000 home, and had boats and planes and trains and automobiles, but we decided to go the other route. Didn’t have as much as we could have had, but we had all we needed.

Most of the people I know who have two incomes could live off of one. They just don’t want to.

jerv's avatar

@Dutchess_III You and I hang out in different circles then, and I know for a fact that Boeing pays pretty decently.

I re-did the math and figured out how to survive on my paycheck. My wife would not have medical coverage or food though. That is on top of losing luxuries like phone service. Alternatively, I could walk to work… 23 miles. (My car costs less than taking the bus.) And it’s not like I have an extravagant lifestyle in the first place; the cuts I could make truly are less than my wifes income.

Yet I also know that my wife and I are doing better than millions of Americans. That fact is overlooked by many, especially those who have never had true hardship. Hell, I am lucky in that I have never gone more than two days without food nor been unable to pay at least enough of my rent to a kind-hearted landlord; those two facts right there put me above a lot of people, especially given the economy over the last few years.

Yes, some people do live beyond their means and wind up in trouble as a result. And some people have a distorted view of what is necessary; they can’t live without HD cable and a fancy car. However, do not assume that everybody is like that. Take it from somebody who is used to beans and rice, doesn’t live on credit (more debt means more bills), and has actually been hard up recently enough to not have forgotten what it’s like.

Dutchess_III's avatar

@jerv Yes, Boeing pays well, but so do a lot of other places.

But, yeah, if you’re talking about one income of minimum wage, it would be very tough.

And I haven’t forgotten what it was like for 10 years after the divorce. Beans and rice. Been there, done that.

jerv's avatar

@Dutchess_III The last job I was laid off from paid me about average wages for what I do (comparable to Boeing), and that was more than enough to support my wife and myself comfortably on just that paycheck even in this area. What I make now could actually work someplace I’m the South where rents are far lower. There is a reason that WA minimum wage is well above the federal one, and I currently earn notably more than that.

As I said, I could do it on my own if I were single, but two people require either two incomes or the luck to have one person land a decent job despite the tough times.

jerv's avatar

@Dutchess_III I just checked the median incomes, both individual and household, and compared them to regional costs of living. First off, the difference between household and individual medians is quite large, showing that many households are two income.

More importantly, I diddled around on sites like Living Wage calculator and found that, as of 2008 for where I live, a household with two adults and no kids requires a minimum gross household income of around $29k and where I used to live that figure is around $26,500. Those calculate out to an hourly wage of $13.94 or $12.81. I think it safe to say that it’s gone up slightly since then.

Comparing those numbers to median incomes (both personal and household) tell me that most households cannot survive on one income. Single people without children generally can do quite well, but the average household size is ~2.6 people; many are married and/or have a kid or two. What that means in practical terms is that, while there are enough households that can survive on one income that they cannot be considered rare, it isn’t the norm either.

Dutchess_III's avatar

I understand. But my experience tells be it CAN be done. For three years, while I was substitute teaching trying to get my own class room, I supported three kids on $10,000 to $13,000 a year. It’s hard, yes, but not impossible. If I’d had another option, I’m sure I’d have taken it too. But I didn’t have another option.

jerv's avatar

I come from similar roots; my mother often had to decide between feeding herself or feeding me. She got a bit lucky and found jobs like working at a day care but wasn’t really much better off than I am now until she married a guy who made decent money.

However, time plays a big role here. $10,000 in 1980 is equal to $27,119.78 in 2011, and conversely, I make about the equivalent of $8,000 1980 dollars. Other things have changed too. My mother didn’t believe apartments where I used to live (and where she still does) cost around $900/month for a modest one and $650-ish for a run-down room in a bad neighborhood because the last time she paid rent, apartments were only around $450. You really can’t compare numbers unless you adjust for time and inflation.

My point stands that some people can do it, but many cannot. Not all circumstances are the same. I know people that make it on less than me despite having kids (more expenses) though that “less than me” doesn’t count WIC, alimony/child support, or other supplements that they need to eke out the meager living that they do.

Dutchess_III's avatar

This would have been 1993 to 1997.

jerv's avatar

That is comparable to my earnings, so I guess it depends on the cost of living in your area. Given how some costs have changed here fairly dramatically just in the two years since I moved (Thank you, Governor Gregoir!), it’s a bit hard for me to say how things were in Seattle then assuming that you were even here at that time.

However, I can see how it is possible on that since that is also a bit more than many people earn. There are a lot of people out there on minimum wage, which was $8,840–10,712/year (assuming full-time employment at 2,080 hrs/yr) at that time. Could you have done it on 20% less money?

Dutchess_III's avatar

This was here in Kansas, not Seattle thank heavens! No way could I have survived on $10,000 a year in Seattle!

Not understanding your question….are you asking if I made $10,000, could I have survived on $8,000 (answer is yes, because that’s what I made in 1994.) Or if I’d made $8,000 could I have survived on $6,500? I’m not sure what you’re asking…

jerv's avatar

In Kansas, things tend to be a lot cheaper than either Seattle or the Northeast so I can see you surviving there on fairly little. I have spent the majority of my life in New England with some time in other places that cost about the same (Seattle and San Diego) so you can guess how it is that I know a lot of people who have trouble making ends meet; more than people who live in the South or Midwest.

And you had it right the first time.

Dutchess_III's avatar

Yes, the cost of living is very reasonable here! I considered moving to Seattle, where my family was, but when I checked in to teaching salaries there, there were the same as they are in Kansas! No way could I have survived on that! The 1600 sq ft house I rented for $350 here would probably cost $1500 or more there. That was more money than I made all month!

jerv's avatar

I am used to it since it is not really any more than I am used to paying.

For instance, back in NH, we had a small cabin (600 sq. ft. if you include the half-loft) about 15 miles from town that, at $800/month, was slightly cheaper than the apartments in town. Add another $100/month for electricity (required to operate the water pump and furnace blower) and the cost of ~600 gallons of propane a year (around $130/month if you are smart, lock in your price, and divide the total cost into 12 monthly payments) and we get to about average housing costs for the area.

That right there is $12,360/yr just for a modest roof over your head and enough utilities to keep from freezing to death, and we haven’t even gotten into things like food, clothing, medical care, etcetera, let alone luxuries like any sort of entertainment budget, a telephone, or internet access.

And then there is transportation. With no mass transit system within 50 miles, you need a car, and it takes more than a gallon of gas to get to work or the store and back (closer to three if you want to do both) so plan on at least a tank a week which these days runs $40–50 for another $200+/month. You can omit the transportation costs if you live in town and can find work that is also in town, but the added rent will probably eat up at least a good chunk of the savings.

Oh, and let us not forget that if you earn enough net income to handle all that, you also earn enough to pay income tax unless you have some hefty deductions, but last I checked, children cost more than you are allowed to write off on your 1040, so tack on a bit more to cover that as well. Pretty soon, we are talking more than a lot of jobs that most people can get will pay, and thus requiring two incomes in the household. And remember that there are millions of other people in the Northeast and along the Pacific Coast that have comparable living expenses.

Seattle is a bit cheaper since we don’t have propane, the electric heat doesn’t have to work nearly as much so our electric bill is around the same as it was in NH, we don’t have to worry about plowing, and my wife works only three miles from home. Of course, there is a 9.5% sales tax as opposed to the 0% in NH, and some things are inherently pricier; our grocery bill jumped quite a bit after we moved, so it’s not that much cheaper here.

So do you see why I have a different perspective? I have spent my entire life in areas that are about the same price to live in. I have had friends from the Midwest drop their jaws when I tell them how much I pay for rent. They wonder how I manage on my income even with a working spouse despite the fact that the two of us combined earn more than 40% of US households.

Oh, and you’re not far off, at least not for any place you would want to live. Take a look.

Dutchess_III's avatar

Yes, I do.

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