Defining the American Dream for trucking ... and the nation, too.

April 27, 2016
Is the "American Dream" becoming more out of reach to most of those employed in the trucking industry — especially truck drivers, who, despite recent pay increases, still find it hard to make a living? Does term even mean the same thing today as it did a generation ago?

According to this story, the “American Dream” is becoming more out of reach to most of those employed in the trucking industry – especially for truck drivers, who, despite recent pay increases, still find it hard to make a living.

But is the American Dream just about big salaries and obtaining an outsized lifestyle? Going one step further: does the term even mean the same thing today as it did a generation ago?

Those were some of the questions asked in the 2016 Northwestern Mutual Planning & Progress Study, an annual research project commissioned by insurance giant Northwestern Mutual aimed at exploring American attitudes and behaviors toward money, financial decision-making, and the broader issues impacting people's long-term financial security.

According to Northwestern’s research — based on a survey of 2,646 American adults aged 18 or older conducted by the Harris Poll back in February — two-thirds (66%) of U.S. adults believe that they can attain the American Dream and only 16% feel it is out of reach. 

That said, there are some key nuances regarding the perception of the American Dream, and not just in terms of generation-over-generation differences.

For example, a third (31%) of Americans say their definition of "the American Dream" has changed in just the last five years, with more than half (57%) noting their view of it is different from their parents'.

So, what are the most defining characteristics of the American Dream today? According to Northwestern’s research, the top two answers are “having a happy family life" (59%) and “being financially secure" (58%), which far outweigh some of the more traditional notions of the American Dream” such as:

• "Having more opportunities than my parents' generation" (18%);

• "Having wealth/making a lot of money" (11%); and

• "Moving up in social class" (3%).

Interestingly, three-quarters of Americans (74%) say they would not swap the lifestyle and financial situation they have today for what their parents had when they were the same age.

"The goal today seems to be more about outcomes — happiness, security and peace of mind — rather than material wealth or the opportunity to advance," noted Rebekah Barsch, vice president of planning and sales at Northwestern Mutual.  "The ‘white picket fence’ is still important, but today Americans seem to care more about what's going on inside the house."

[Of course, sometimes it's the "intangibles" of a career like truck driving that count, too.]

And financial security is the big worry inside that “white picket fence,” throwing a lot of shade over the American Dream. For example:

• The study found nearly a third of U.S. adults (29%) said they do not feel financially secure;

• Only one in five (21%) Americans consider themselves to be "highly disciplined" financial planners; 

• A third (34%) consider themselves "disciplined" planners;

• Another third (33%) consider themselves "informal" planners; and

• More than one in ten (12%) "do not plan at all" and "have not set any financial goals." 

"Financial security has emerged as the very pillar of the ‘American Dream’ today, and a distinct catalyst toward leading a happy life,” Barsch noted. “But there's a disconnect between how the relatively small steps of solid planning and strong discipline can lead to big strides toward achieving that ‘American Dream.’ Optimism is great, but it needs to be backed up with consistent action."

Yet it’s not all about money. Indeed, in a separate study that polled two million people worldwide conducted by global healthcare company Abbott, “family” came out as the number-one requirement for "living a full life,” though they listed “money” as the number one barrier to obtaining that family-centered “full life.”

[Note: This study shows that more home time helps boost truck driver retention and performance. That’s important as this economist thinks higher pay will not be enough to solve the industry’s chronic and growing shortage of truck drivers.]

Take a look at some of Abbott’s findings:

• More than 32% of respondents said the number one key to a full life is family, followed by success (12%); giving (8%) and health (7%).

• People who chose “family” or “spirituality” as reasons why they are most fulfilled often rated themselves higher on how well they are currently “living fully.” People who chose “success” or “music” rated themselves lower on the fulfillment scale.

• Some 23% of respondents said that attitude matters, and is the number one reason people believe others are living full lives. Other key drivers were money (16%), health (11%) and family (10%).

• People said money (44%) is the top barrier to living a full life, followed by time (33%), work (20%) and priorities (17%).

• When asked what they wished for their kids, more than 40% of those surveyed said they want good health (41%), followed by great adventure (29%) and career success (17%).

• Health was listed as a top three reason why people believe others are living a full life.

• Age and gender are not seen as barriers to living a full life in most countries surveyed. 

• Russia and Puerto Rico are the only two countries to list music as a key to living fully. Australia and France rated “adventure” as the second-highest factor to living fully; they were the only two countries that had this answer in their top rankings.

“Those results reflect a dynamic that has been ingrained in humans for much of history. There’s always a sense of tension between what we value as society and what might actually be possible for individuals,” commented Eric Hedberg, sociologist and assistant professor with the Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics at Arizona State University, in Northwestern’s study.

“Around the world, most societies value family and success; these are core needs of any human being,” he pointed out. “However, not every society provides the same opportunities to achieve those goals. Instead of accepting barriers to fulfillment, it’s important for individuals to refocus on what they can do to change these conditions.” 

Something to keep in mind as the trucking industry and the nation as a whole struggles to figure out just what the “American Dream” really means in this day and age.

About the Author

Sean Kilcarr 1 | Senior Editor

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