Even on a good day, defining the American Dream is a moving target.
But the Dream's now become as volatile as our stock markets. It's a major topic of debate in our historical presidential election. And it's under renewed attack as an emerging global recession looms, sapping the national myth that the Dream is actually attainable for nearly anyone.
Increasingly, older folks, aging boomers, Generations X and Y, the wealthy and wanna-be wealthy all aspire to different takes of the American Dream.
That, at least, is one of the conclusions of Ann Mack, who at 33 enjoys the, uh, trendy title of "director of trendspotting" at J. Walter Thompson. The New York advertising giant conducted a survey last month of 2,112 adults asking what the American Dream means today and how it's changed over the decades.
"This is a complex time for the American Dream, and it is being both affirmed and challenged," Mack says. "At the same time that the nation is guaranteed to make history with either the first African-American president or the first female vice president, the crisis in the financial system is threatening many millions with hardship."
For older Americans, the Dream is about freedom, as well as the possibility of building a good life through hard work. I think of my grandparents, born at the start of the 20th century, who told me tales of Great Depression hardship - but also the positives of a community sense that "we're all in this together" - from West Virginia (drawn there by the glass business) and south Georgia (making turpentine from the slash pines).
My father was the first in the family to go to college, courtesy of a U.S. Navy eager to produce engineer-trained officers and stick them on World War II aircraft carriers. Those events of the first half of that century all hit older-generation touchstones of the American Dream: middle-class stability, an education promising better opportunities, an embrace of hard work, long hours and an ingrained refusal to complain.
The J.W. Thompson survey found younger Americans largely take for granted the conditions appreciated by older generations, and dream instead of fame, fortune and happiness.
To kick-start a new school year, Tampa Bay public high school teachers try various ways to get to know incoming students. In one 10th-grade class of challenged readers, students are asked: Where do you expect to be in 10 years?
Fame and fortune dominate the answers. "I'm going to be playing in the (NBA) (NFL)." Or, "I'm going to be living in a mansion and have lots of (cars) (clothes)."
These aspirations come from (mostly) 15-year-olds who already believe there is little value in improving basic education skills, repeatedly fail to pass the FCAT, and never learned to work hard on homework outside of class.
The bottom line: With the economy in a nasty funk and rising doubts about our national leaders at a critical time, the survey found people feel the American Dream, however defined, is less attainable.
Suggests trendspotter Mack: "The next president, whomever he is, will need to reinvigorate the American Dream."
Robert Trigaux can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.