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The Unachievable Dream

Institutional changes in marriage, career advancement, and households have made achieving the American Dream difficult for Michelle Jarrett. But she isn’t giving up.

The alarm goes off three times, and Michelle Jarrett presses snooze after each. Just five more minutes, she thinks. On the third ring, she forces herself to get out of bed. It’s about 5:30 in the morning, and Michelle has to be at her first job at seven.

She leaves the bedroom that she shares with her second husband, Joe, and takes their chocolate Lab, Reese, outside. In the kitchen, she begins to pack her lunch for the day.  

Michelle currently works two jobs. She is employed part time at Kohl’s and is one of four managers at Office Depot, where she has worked since she was sixteen.

She is now thirty-seven, and this was not the dream she had in mind when she married her first husband in 2003. Rather, she saw all of her years of hard work paying off with promotions, a happy marriage, and a big house with a white picket fence and a lot of land to raise six kids – the perfect family. Her image very much resembled the stereotypical American Dream.

But her life hasn’t turned out to be what historian James Truslow Adams had in mind when he coined the term “American Dream” in 1931. He defined the American Dream as a land where everyone has the opportunity to succeed through hard work.

However, there are multiple interpretations of the American Dream.

With hard work, Michelle thought she would be inevitably successful in her job, find someone to settle down with, and be able to afford a white house on a big plot of land to raise her family. When she married her first husband, she had this dream for the two of them.

But those dreams were much harder to achieve than she ever could have thought.

The Institution of Marriage

The dream in Michelle’s mind began to fade around August of 2011. After eight years with her husband, she began to suspect he was cheating on her. Despite her suspicions, she continued to fight for her marriage.

Thirty-seven percent of relationships in the United States experience infidelity, according to Zur Institute, an institute that offers information on health and wellness to the public. Today, the divorce rate is about fifty percent, according to American Psychological Association.

The institution of marriage today is different than it was about sixty years ago, according to Cecil Bohanon, a professor of economics at Ball State University.  He says that the norm in the 1950s was for people to stay with their spouses even if they hated each other, usually in order to remain financially stable. Now, people split the assets in divorce and it leads to more financial instability. Divorce rates are higher today, and they are easier to obtain, because of no-fault divorce laws established in the 1970s. These laws allow a marriage to be dissolved without proof of wrongdoing of either spouse.

Michelle and her ex spent the last year of their marriage arguing. And in April of 2013, they split up.

Michelle left their house, and another component of her dream, a happy home, went out the door.

Her marriage had failed, and she now had to find a new home. But she still had her job, and through hard work, she thought she could transform her life.

Fewer Opportunities for Advancement

Michelle hoped a college education in business management and economics would allow her to move up in Office Depot, a company she had been employed with since the age of sixteen.

Michelle was able to work herself up from being a sales associate to a department manager, but that still wasn’t what she dreamed of. She wanted an assistant manager position in the company, so she took it upon herself to ask for advancement in the company. The response she received wasn’t quite what she was expecting.

“Michelle, I like you where you are,” she remembers the district manager saying after she requested a promotion. She felt her whole body sink—her dream crushed again.

This was what I went to school for. I should be able to move up, she remembers thinking.

Between 1996 and 2010, the average woman “lost some of the promotion momentum they had achieved at the beginning of mid-career, although they outperformed men in this regard,” according to the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, a set of surveys used to gather information about important life events in men and women. Michelle agrees with this.

After her fifth try she came to the conclusion that the promotion she wanted just wasn’t going to happen.

The economic downturn of 2001 and the Great Recession of 2007–2009 also contributed to lower promotion rates. At one time, promotions were expected if one stayed with a company for so long. Today, that is not the norm. Bohanon says that now, it is not expected for someone to keep only one job for thirty or forty years. Rather, the expectation is for someone to move around in the workforce. He says if someone has been with one job for twenty years without a promotion, he would ask why they hadn’t moved around.  

Bohanon says it made sense for a student in the 1950s who went to college to immediately get the job they wanted—about ten percent of students were college graduates. He says that today, around fifty percent of students graduate with a college degree, which makes that degree mean less in the eyes of employers. It’s more about who has the experience—not the degree itself.  

Five years after her request, Michelle has only received one promotion in the company. She has moved from supervisor to operations manager, but she is still a long way from her dream assistant manager position—one that she believes she is qualified to hold.

Households Have Changed

Michelle lived with her parents until she was twenty-one. Then, she moved to a rented home with her soon-to-be first husband.

Her dream was to live in a large house with a big yard—possibly somewhere in Greenfield, Indiana, where she could raise six kids within a happy marriage.

Currently, she is still striving for her dream home and for the kids, both of which seem more out of reach each day.

Sixty-two percent of Americans says that their ideal marriage or household is one where both spouses work and take care of their family equally, according to a study by Pew Research. This is in contrast to forty-eight percent in 1977. Michelle and Joe are among that sixty-two percent.

They are prepared to take care of a family, and they want nothing more than to have kids. The house with a big yard is important, but if it doesn’t happen, that will be okay. They’ve tried to buy their dream home, but at this time, they still haven’t been able to secure it. Joe has bad credit, which Michelle says is due to his identity being stolen. This means they haven’t been able to get approved for a housing loan, so instead, they live in a rented house. But it’s not the white house with the big yard, and there aren’t kids running around.

Today, Michelle works almost fifteen hour days between her two jobs at Office Depot and Kohl’s. She has one part of her American dream, Joe, but still no kids, still no dream home, and still no dream career.

She’s willing to compromise—a rented home is fine for now instead of the big white house. But her career is still important to her. Pretty soon, she plans to look for a new job and hopefully have the career and position she’s always envisioned for herself. At this point, six kids probably won’t happen. And she’s okay with that, as long as she has one eventually. 

She hasn’t given up on her dream. She’s still actively working to achieve it, one step at a time.

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