Is the American Dream Dead -- or Just in Hiding?

Photo: Is the American Dream Dead -- or Just in Hiding? Cutting Back on the Excess of the Boom Years Might Not Be so Bad, Some Families Discover

As the recession grinds on, and we take stock of our country's lost jobs, foreclosed homes and decimated 401(k)s, many Americans are lamenting the loss of something that can't be captured in statistics and data points: the American Dream.

VIDEO: The new American Dream
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Commenting on the state of the economy shortly after taking office, President Barack Obama equated the economic downturn with nothing less than "the American Dream in reverse."

But what exactly is this elusive American Dream that seems to be slipping away?

Vanity Fair writer David Kamp notes that the American Dream is not a static concept. The evolution of this idea is reflected in popular television. In the 1950s, Ralph and Alice Kramden lived in a grubby New York tenement on "The Honeymooners." Just a few years later the American viewing audience could set its sights higher by watching the Cleavers in their modest suburban home on "Leave it to Beaver." By the 1970s, "The Brady Bunch" lived in an even bigger home and could afford a Hawaiian vacation. The families of "Dynasty" and "Dallas" played out their decadent dramas in mansions during the 1980s. All of which led inexorably to the spoiled brats of "Gossip Girl" and "The Hills."

To many, the American Dream seemed to evolve into something more like a nightmare.

"The boom grossed me out," said professor Richard Florida of the University of Toronto. "I mean I just thought it was gauche and horrible and over the top. You know, 'Hummerville' and 'Conspicuous-Consumptionville.' I never liked it."

Florida said America is now in the midst of what he calls "The Great Reset," a time when our entire way of life will be re-imagined.

"I think many, many Americans felt that they were on this kind of treadmill and couldn't keep up and actually felt empty. You can't just buy yourself into self-worth," said Florida.

During the boom, Holly and Keith Berkley of San Diego, Calif., were definitely on that treadmill. 35-year-old Holly's Internet marketing consulting company was thriving. She was driven, she says, to the extreme.

American Dream: A Life in Overdrive

"With both my boys, I only took one day off after giving birth," Holly told "20/20." "I only took one day off because that's what you were supposed to do. That's how you get successful."

Her husband Keith, 37, was in overdrive, too. His contracting business was doubling in size every year.

And the more Keith and Holly made, the more they spent. As their businesses thrived, Holly and Keith got a luxury SUV, bought a new house at the top of the market and furnished it with three flat-screen TVs. They hired help to handle their yard work and indulged their love of the music of U2 by traveling the world to see the band perform in exotic venues.

Then came the crash, and the Berkley's American Dream started to crumble.

"I went through a period of time for about four months at the beginning of this year where I didn't bring home any money. I could just barely keep the business going," said Keith.

Keith was forced to close his office and run his business from home. He went from 25 employees to five and he sold tools on Craigslist to make payroll.

"We said, 'Wait a minute. This is really serious,'" said Keith. "'We're going to run out of money completely and we're not going to be able to function.'"

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