The American Dream Pivot


Over the last year, I’ve done a lot of work on life stages and how households in different phases approach work, relationships, and day-to-day life. Something we’ve shared with our clients is that along life’s journey, there are many traditional rites of passage. In this country, they often relate to the achievement of “The American Dream” ideal, the “ideal that every US citizen should have an equal opportunity to achieve success and prosperity through hard work, determination, and initiative.”

This path for achieving this improving social status has, for the most part, been linear and sequential, usually over time and characterized by belief in:  

  • Hard work
  • Loyalty to an employer
  • Sacrifice (delayed gratification)
  • Material possessions as symbols of success
  • Equal opportunity

Truth be told, large swaths of our population haven’t believed this version of The American Dream existed for some time. There is no loyalty between employers and employees anymore. There is little perceived reward for hard work and sacrifice. Acquiring material possessions is not environmentally or economically sustainable. So we’re experiencing a “pivot” of The American Dream. A different version exists, and it’s a vastly different journey depending on your generation.    

Millennials, for many reasons, have rejected many aspects of this historical, social progression and they would rather experience smaller doses of the dream along the way (and it’s not because they are lazy or entitled - get over that, boomers). Gen-X career progression is blunted by Boomers who aren’t retiring, so they are starting companies and taking control of their destiny. And boomers (disclosure, I’m a boomer)? This generation may be the one that struggles most with living their version of the dream. Under-funded for retirement and unhealthy due to many life choices, this group is going to be a significant drain on societal resources over the next 20 years.

I anticipate these differing expectations for “The American Dream” will be a continuing source of conflict for the foreseeable future. The implications are vast and the subject of a future blog 😏. However, from a broad perspective, the way to address this is to shift brand strategy from traditional market positioning (positioning vis-a-vis competitors, consumption) to one of cultural positioning (the day-to-day life of an audience, positive impact). Cultural positioning is about trust and the extent to which a customer feels the brand truly has their best interest at heart. It’s an entirely different way of thinking, away from campaigns and messaging, and toward action. The question evolves from  “What are you saying?” to “What are you actually DOING?” and that is what brand strategy must address.