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Jottings contributor Jacquelyn Gatewood shares thoughts about the American Dream. Is it dead?

Growing up in the suburbs of Detroit, Michigan, the Motor City, auto workers at the Big 3 received paychecks larger than those of school teachers. They owned houses, traded in cars every three years, and bought fishing boats and campers for trips to Traverse City and the Upper Peninsula.

Their children often followed in their footsteps, enjoying pensions and paid medical insurance. If they desired to go to college, community college tuition was cheap — even university costs were affordable.

If you asked them, these auto workers would say they were living the good life, achieving the American Dream.

What happened?

Now we see auto companies closing plants, and people being laid off, losing houses, and struggling to make ends meet and pay their medical expenses. The gap between rich and poor is larger than ever, and the homeless situation is dire — Oregon ranks as one of the highest in the nation for homeless populations. College costs have skyrocketed, often leaving students with debts that take a lifetime to repay.

In 1931, James T. Adams, (1878-1949) an American writer and historian, defined the American Dream as upward mobility for everyone regardless of birth, through sacrifice, hard work, and risk-taking. Webster's dictionary describes it as a "happy way of living that can be achieved by working hard and becoming successful with a good job, nice house, two children, and plenty of money."

In Arthur Miller's 1949 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, "Death of a Salesman," protagonist Willy Loman fails to achieve his dream and eventually commits suicide so that his family will have the life insurance proceeds. He is not a success, and he lashes out at others for his failures. His son, Biff, tells him they are not meant for greatness, they are just ordinary men leading ordinary lives.

When my Senior Studies Institute group addressed this issue at one spirited meeting, one member said the American Dream has always been inspirational. Another member said that when two babies are born in a hospital, one to a poor immigrant family and one to a wealthy family with dynastic connections, there is no contest.

Income inequality is the primary reason why the young are left behind. Slower rates of economic growth is a secondary factor. Only 50 percent of people born in the 1980s are making more than their parents compared with 90 percent of children born in 1940, according to a study by researchers at Stanford University, Harvard, and the University of California, Berkeley.

Perhaps the definition of the American Dream has changed. Being able to afford to buy a home or even to pay the high costs of rent in cities like Portland, young people adjust by doubling up with friends or staying in their parents' home. They may trade owning a car for riding a bicycle in the city.

Defining this as trendy makes it more acceptable. If they concentrate on education and focus on attaining satisfaction through their careers, this would make a difference in their ability to save for retirement and keep up with increasing medical expenses, two areas that people worry about most when measuring their success in life.

Success is a relative term. For recent immigrants escaping from dangerous situations or places in the world, it may mean having a safe place to exist. Achieving the dream of success through hard work may mean pursuing one's passion in the arts or other professions where money is not the primary motivator.

Living a life of integrity by making correct choices reminds me of the film, "On the Waterfront." After throwing a fight, a prizefighter, played by Marlon Brando, laments his choices: "I coulda been a contender!" Success and happiness only comes to him when he confronts his past and corrects mistakes.

The Center for a New American Dream envisions "a focus on more of what really matters, such as creating a meaningful life, contributing to community and society, valuing nature and spending time with family and friends."

Finally, we may conclude that the American Dream is not dead; however its definition has changed and will continue to evolve over time.

Jacquelyn Gatewood is a member of the Jottings group at the Lake Oswego Adult Community Center.

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