I think I achieved the American Dream. It took a lot of time in school and 20 years of hard work to make it happen. It wasn't what I expected, but I accomplished it through a different path. —Robert McDaniel, the assistant superintendent at Murray School District
Although a new study shows 79 percent of Americans believe the American Dream is alive, there appear to be a few contradictions in some of their other responses. Northwestern Mutual released data from its Planning & Progress survey on Tuesday. It falls in line with 2011 research from Pew Charitable Trusts' Economic Mobility Project that showed 70.4 percent of Americans think the American Dream is "very much alive" or "somewhat alive." The Pew poll also found that 67.5 percent believe they have achieved the American Dream or will reach it in their lifetime.
The new survey from Northwestern Mutual also asked Americans about their optimism and whether they see the world as a "glass half full" (73 percent) or a "glass half empty" (27 percent).
Although 73 percent of Americans say they see the world as a "glass half full," the survey's findings are tempered by the fact that 34 percent of Americans say the dream is alive, but that opportunity is not as good as a generation ago, and 21 percent indicate it is gone altogether. Only 9 percent say the American Dream is as good or better than it was a generation ago. Thirty-six percent say it is alive, but they think priorities and ambitions have changed. For them, the American Dream is about happiness, health and life balance.
Mark McLennon, vice president of advisory services with Northwestern Mutual, doesn't see a contradiction within the findings. "Generally, people are optimistic about the future," he says, "but realistic that there are very real challenges in the present."
Robert McDaniel, the assistant superintendent at Murray School District, had his own run in with challenges as he has tried to achieve the American Dream. "My dream was to be a stand-up comedian, not go into education," he says. "But I ending up realizing the type of work that would have required was not a route I wanted to invest in."
So McDaniel kept his optimism and good humor, but changed his dream.
"I think I achieved the American Dream," he says. "It took a lot of time in school and 20 years of hard work to make it happen. It wasn't what I expected, but I accomplished it through a different path."
Even though most Americans believe in the dream, there is some doubt about its viability to future generations. Only 22 percent of younger Americans think their children or grandchildren will have the same opportunities they've had.
"Consider what Generation Y has experienced as they've entered adulthood," McLennon says, "and it's not surprising to us that we're seeing higher levels of pessimism, but also higher levels of pragmatism. They're showing some good signs that they'll be careful planners."
Americans age 67 and older appear to be the most optimistic about the future, with 79 percent saying the world is a "glass half full" — contrasted with Gen Y (aged 25-32) who have 33 percent saying the "glass is half empty." Yet, the seniors, even with that optimism, are also the most skeptical about the American Dream. Thirty-one percent of them think the dream is dead, and another 37 percent don't think it will be there for their grandchildren.
Another recent survey, the Harris Poll, says 61 percent of Americans think the country has "pretty seriously gotten off on the wrong track."
But still, there is that 73 percent optimism.
"You're optimistic because you know it is a possibility," McDaniel says, "but you are skeptical because you know what it is going to take in order to achieve it. A large percent of people are willing to put forth the effort to achieve it. "
McLennon thinks the half-full, half-empty glass is reflected in the results of the Northwestern Mutual survey itself.
"On one hand, you can say that optimism remains strong in the face of serious challenges," he says. "On the other, you could say the serious challenges are threatening the American Dream."
He says people appear to be both optimistic and realistic at the same time. "Most of what we worry about day-to-day never actually comes to pass, so maybe optimism is more realistic than pessimism," McLennon says. "I have to believe that optimism, combined with a well thought-out realistic plan and some expert guidance along the way, has played a critical role in helping many people achieve that American Dream."