Is the American Dream Dead?

What exactly is the American Dream?

A few weeks ago, when ABC News put out a new poll showing that 62 percent of Americans are spending less (on things like vacations, cars, dining out), our polling czar, Gary Langer, said we were witnessing "no less than a diminution of the American dream."

That got me thinking. What exactly is the American Dream? Could it be dying? Changing? Are we heading into a radically different future? Could this future possibly be simpler and better?

Apparently I'm not alone in wondering about this. There are some fascinating theories floating around

Peggy Noonan just wrote an excellent column on the topic, in which she makes the following predictions about what life will be like under a scaled-down American Dream:

"There will be fewer facelifts and browlifts, less Botox, less dyed hair among both men and women. They will look more like people used to look, before perfection came in. Middle-aged bodies will be thicker and softer, with more maternal and paternal give. … The new home fashion will be spare. This will be the return of an old WASP style: the good, frayed carpet; dogs that look like dogs and not a hairdo in a teacup, as miniature dogs back from the canine boutique do now."

Noonan was inspired by this article in USA Today about the Wojtowicz family, who, squeezed by the economic downturn, "gave up vacation cruises, restaurant meals, new clothes and high-tech toys to become 21st-century homesteaders."

"Now Patrick Wojtowicz, 36, his wife Melissa, 37, and daughter Gabrielle, 15, raise pigs and chickens for food on 40 acres near Alma, Mich. They're planning a garden and installing a wood furnace. They disconnected the satellite TV and radio, ditched their dishwasher and a big truck and started buying clothes at resale shops."

The article says the Wojtowiczs are part of a trend: more Americans are stockpiling food, buying vegetable seeds, canning and preserving products and learning to sew.

The Wojtowiczs see this trend as a positive one.

"The earn, spend, earn era has come to an end for us," Patrick Wojtowicz says on, their blog. "The idea of living a fuller, more satisfying life seems simple to us now. … Money, cash, credit, maybe they don't matter. Maybe, just maybe, it is those things that impede our ability to be truly happy."

The Wojtowiczs' scaling back of the American Dream is downright mild when compared to what is envisaged by the Transition Movement, a group featured in the Sunday New York Times Magazine.

This group trains local communities across the country to be totally self-sufficient, foreseeing a world where modern civilization falls apart as a result of global economic collapse, climate change and the end of the world's oil supplies.

"Transition's approach is adamantly different from that of the survivalists … in bunkers stocked with gold and guns," says the New York Times Magazine. "The movement may begin from a similarly dystopian idea: that cheap oil has recklessly vaulted humanity to a peak of production and consumption, and no combination of alternative technologies can generate enough energy, or be installed fast enough, to keep us at that height before the oil is gone. But Transition then takes an almost utopian turn. … We can consciously plot a path into a lower-energy life -- a life of walkable villages, local food and artisans and greater intimacy with the natural world -- which, on balance, could actually be richer and more enjoyable than what we have now."

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