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American dream still burns bright for many – but results vary

Men in their 30s earn about $5,000 less in real terms than their fathers' generation did, according to a new study.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 3, 2007

If the American dream means doing better than your parents did, then Mike Brockman's not living it. Single, with a 10-year-old daughter, he's a server at a Black Angus restaurant in Mesa, Ariz. His father at his age had a good, steady job as a machinist at TRW.

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Today "there aren't the kind of jobs available you used to get with a high school education, and work yourself up," says Mr. Brockman. "Now you have to have training or experience to start – then you can work your way up from there."

Norman Payne, on the other hand, thinks the American dream is alive and well. An immigrant from Panama, he's lived in the US for 16 years – and on June 28 in Boston he was sworn in as a US citizen.

Mr. Payne works in customer service at Kodak and has high hopes for his young son and daughter.

"I don't think the American dream has changed," he says. "I am trying to do everything I can do so that they can do better than I did."

Two hundred and thirty-one years after the 13 colonies declared their independence from Great Britain, is the United States still the land of opportunity, the light of hope for the poor of the world?

The economic dream that has united a diverse population for generations, that children would be more prosperous than their parents, is in question as perhaps never before.

Yet the nation's overall standard of living remains high. Immigrants both legal and illegal arrive every year by the tens of thousands, testament to the US economy's continuing dynamism.

Less mobility in US

Overall, there is actually less economic mobility in the US than in Canada and many European countries, notes John Morton, Managing Director, Program Planning and Economic Policy, for the Pew Charitable Trusts.

But for immigrants "the economic assimilation machine is in fact still very strong," says Mr. Morton, who is helping lead a long-term Pew project on the American dream's health.

The phrase "American dream" is relatively recent. It was popularized in the 1930s by historian James Truslow Adams, who in his day was a widely read author on the major themes and figures of the nation, similar to, say, David McCullough today.

Yet the idea expressed by the phrase, that the US was a land of opportunity where generation after generation would keep doing better and better, has always been the "gyroscope of American life," writes Southern Methodist University political scientist Cal Jillson in his book "Pursuing the American Dream."

In some periods the American dream has seemed more attainable than in others, says Mr. Jillson. Most recently, it was alive and well in the era from the end of World War II through the early 1970s.

But since 1973, median family income has been essentially flat, says Jillson.

"This is one of those periods in American history when to many ... the American dream seems illusory," Jillson says.

Some polls back up this contention. In a recent CBS News survey of 17- to 29-year-olds, only 25 percent of respondents said their generation would be better off than their parents. Forty-eight percent said they would be worse off.

The American dream is "obsolete," says Adam Gandelman, a Boston bike messenger. "It's a scam."

Single-earner families see fall in pay

Income figures show that the days are gone when a single, stable income, typically earned by the father, was enough to launch the next generation to greater prosperity, according to a Pew report on economic mobility released this spring.

Today, men in their 30s earn about $5,000 less in real terms than did their fathers' generation, according to Pew.