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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.

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That fits with Brockman's experience. Neither he, nor his father, graduated from college. Nor did his grandmother, but she worked her way up from a secretarial position to the executive ranks at GE.

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"I couldn't get the job my dad had at [age] 30 without a degree, or waiting in line for years," he says.

However, overall family income is a different story. Families with men in their 30s today have about $4,000 more in annual income than did their parents' generation.

"The main reason that family incomes have risen is that more women have gone to work, buttressing the incomes of men by adding a second earner," notes the Pew economic mobility report.

Katy Curtis, a real estate agent in north Scottsdale, Ariz., did not work when she was in the family-rearing stage of life. "And we survived quite well," she says.

But her two daughters, now in that thirty-something cohort, are finding life economically more difficult, she says.

They see new cars and plasma TVs and other accoutrements everywhere, and they want them, too. "I think there are more demands made upon them materialistically, and it's harder," says Ms. Curtis. "Things have gone up in price, and I don't think salaries are commensurate with that."

Some experts point out that income measures today are an inexact gauge of family well-being.

Cash, for example, is just one part of compensation. "Total compensation includes such increasingly important components of workers‚ pay as health benefits, contributions to retirement plans, and paid vacations," writes Heritage Foundation labor expert James Sherk in a recent analysis of economic mobility.

And the use of the Consumer Price Index to calculate inflation-adjusted pay is a mistake, according to Mr. Sherk. Economists should use the more accurate implicit price deflator instead.

"The result of this mistake is that wage growth will almost always appear to lag far behind productivity growth, even when workers are making gains," writes Sherk.

Nor does everyone judge the American dream to be purely based on monetary gain.

Mike Heitmann is a Kansas City resident visiting his wife's family in Boston, his four daughters in tow. "The American dream is having a strong family and living in a place where we have freedoms like we do in the US," says Mr. Heitmann. "Family is the most important thing."

More to American dream than money

Wallace Sheppard will return to Iraq for his third tour there in October. The Army serviceman, based in Ft. Campbell, Kentucky, is also in Boston as a tourist.

"I define [the American dream] as being happy," he says. "Money doesn't really mater if you make enough to sustain your family."

And for the masses in many other parts of the world, whether they are huddled or not, the Statue of Liberty still stands as their dream destination.

Joseph Nemorin today is a line cook at Nick's Italian Restaurant on Ocean Drive in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He's been there 17 years.

He arrived in the US from Haiti when he himself was 17. Today he is a legal permanent resident who says he has done better than his parents. He expects his children will do better than he has, because they were born in America.

The American dream is available for those who come to the US for the right reason, he says. "If you come to work, you don't get in trouble ... you should be doing fine, just like me."

Faye Bowers in Phoenix, Bill Frogameni in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Bina Venkataraman in Boston contributed to this report.