The Not-American Dream

Do other countries have national catchphrases?

China’s middle class has American-dream-style aspirations

Several recent news articles on the sluggish economy have noted that a central tenet of the “American Dream,” home ownership, may no longer be within reach. Some columnists, meanwhile, are taking the opportunity to argue that we shouldn’t associate the “American Dream” so strongly with buying a house or a condo. Do other countries have an equivalent of the American dream?

Not exactly.  America seems to be unique in having an internationally recognizable catchphrase that sums up its national ethos—the French don’t have a “rêve Français” and the Spanish don’t have a “sueño español.” The Explainer did come across some attempts to create taglines. U.K. Labour Party leader Ed Miliband coined the phrase “the British Promise”, meaning that each generation can and will do better than the last, but it hasn’t caught on. After the fall of the Soviet Union, both Boris Yeltsin, in 1996, and Vladimir Putin, in 1999, asked advisers to think up a “national idea” or a “Russian idea” to replace the outdated Soviet/Communist ideologies. But the search eventually turned into a bit of a joke, and the phrase never came to embody one particular notion. As discourse about China’s middle class grows, the term “Chinese Dream” has been bandied about by newspaper journalists and authors—but, again, the phrase isn’t anywhere near as pervasive or resonant as the American dream.

That said, the generic principle of the American dream—an identifiable vision of what it means to be middle class, and a path to achieving that—exists in some way in lots of different places. For example, in a book that plays off the American dream idea, called The European Dream, the author voices some sense of a European equivalent.  In the European Dream, community relationships are more important than individual autonomy, quality of life is more important than wealth accumulation, and the prevailing attitude is “work to live” not “live to work.”

In Russia today, a sign that a person has arrived in the middle class is not home ownership (Russians actually have a rather complicated relationship with housing and mortgages) but the ability to travel abroad—a relic of all the years when Russia was a closed country. A 2009 novel about the corrupt world of Russian politics (supposedly written under a pen name by one of Putin’s aides) describes Moscow cocktail parties in which the first question people ask each other upon greeting is “So where have you traveled recently?” 

In China, as in the United States, urban middle class-ness entails owning a home and a car, as well as having access to education and travel.  When talking about home ownership, the Chinese sometimes refer to wanting an urban “oasis,” a term that connotes an apartment of one’s own decoration and appointed in a modern way. Such aspirations a step away from the more traditional Chinese national idea of a society in which everyone is comfortable but nobody is rich.

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Explainer thanks Jim Cullen, author of The American Dream: A Short History of an Idea That Shaped a Nation; Leela Fernandes of the University of Michigan; John Merriman of Yale University; Smitha Radhakrishnan of Wellesley College; Jeremy Rifkin, author of The European Dream: How Europe’s Vision of the Future Is Quietly Eclipsing the American Dream; Vladimir Shlapentokh of Michigan State University; and Cinzia Solari of University of Massachusetts Boston.