Sunday, February 21, 2010

Living the Dream

We hear a lot about The American Dream, but is there a British Dream?


Here in the US, the American dream is a common phrase, and defined by Webster's dictionary as "an American social ideal that stresses egalitarianism and especially material prosperity; also: the prosperity or life that is the realization of this ideal".

I'd say there's a lot of it in the UK, too, whether or not is has a name. You know, eyeing up the neighbour's new car, mortgaging yourself up to the hilt to get the bigger house, buying the kids designer duds 'cause all their friends have them. Material possessions mean so much to some people that they'll actually take on far too much debt to get the goods. "All fur coat and no knickers" as my gran used to say, lips pursed and hands clasped firmly on her handbag. Of course, very few Brits actually admit that's what they're doing, even though they're desperate to show off their "stuff".

Over in the States it's more like a kindergarten show and tell. Big houses, big cars (still), earning them a pat on the back from friends and neighbors. None of that "Who do they think they are?" cynicism. The further up the social ladder Americans can haul themselves, the more you'll hear about it. The millionaire who's the son of a truck driver, the music executive who once lived on the streets - they love all that.

Part of the need for material wealth and possessions is that the ancestors of many Americans came to this country literally with the clothes on their back. Financial security became the number one priority for them and this was instilled into future generations. Look at the millions of students who will take on huge debt to get themselves through college thus educating themselves further up the social ladder and usually ensuring financial security.

Much as I hate to use Simon Cowell as a source, this alleged quote is quite apt, I think:

“If you would have asked me what I thought of America before I came over here I would have used the word `corny`. And then you come over here and you find that it`s not corny at all. British people are very cynical, they cannot bear someone else`s success. Americans embrace other people`s success. Everything in America is larger than life.”


Is there a "British Dream"? If you go by strict definition, no. The American Dream is well documented. We talk about, write about it, analyse it, debate it, wonder why our kids don't take it as seriously as we think they ought to, agonize that the immigrates are taking it over. So, yeah, the American Dream is real.

In my own family, my great-grandfather left his native country (England, ironically enough) to find a better life in America. (Or, he was deported, depending on the version of our family history you subscribe to.) At any rate, he was a laborer in Lancashire and, after arriving in America, started a catering business and eventually opened a hotel, thereby ensuring that my children would grow up believing that a three-course dinner consists of a Big Mac, large fries and a hot apple pie. One could say, he achieved the American Dream, and I'm sure he would have gladly admitted to it.

But take my limited experience is Britain. My own family, the recent immigrants as well as those with longer lineages (Britain, like America, is a mongrel nation; they are just loath to admit it), all worked hard to improve their lot and provide a better future for their children. One could argue this is The Dream, it just doesn't have a name. Nor would they, as good Britons, give it one. Proclaiming your rising status and intentions to rise higher would be vulgar and arrogant and, frankly, something you might expect from an American.

But to an American, it is not arrogant; it is confidence, and a belief in an ideal handed down by our forefathers.

In my view, Americans strive for The Dream, feel confident that they will achieve it, become insecure when they do because then they want more and worry that their children won't have the opportunities they had, especially with house prices the way they are, and have you seen how the interest rates are going up, and those (pick a nationality) have moved in next door and that's going to wreak havoc on the local housing market, while the Brits just get on with it.

So is there a British Dream? I believe so; the British just don't bang on about it.

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  1. The American Dream is indeed a product of the way America was built--immigrants hoping for something better than what they had before.

    Britains don't really have that kind of history, and Britain has not been called the 'Land of Opportunity' in conjunction with 'dream' which suggests there's a different attitude generally.

    If there is a British Dream it seems more to do with becoming a WAG or getting on Big Brother or in the pages of OK or Hello. Bleh.

  2. I don't think there is a 'British Dream', as such. Maybe this is something to do with snobbery and the class system? America is traditionally a meritocracy - in the UK, we are more suspicious of success and people who rise from humble beginnings tend to be viewed as vulgar and 'nouveau riche' (sadly) or 'social climbers'. I hope this is changing, though.

  3. This was a really interesting post. A British dream? no, i don't think so. or at least not that i've noticed. there is an awful lot of 'keeping up with the Jones's' though.

  4. Made me wonder about the Israeli dream and whether there is one.

    I think that all over the world people just want to be able to achieve a level of prosperity that they can enjoy the good things in life.

  5. Heather got the phrase right, the fact is in England you want to 'keep up with the Jones'. It's about appearences not achivement.

    In America, people seem geniunely happy when someone succeeds or even trys something new. In England people seem to want you to fail maybe so that they can justify their own cautious, don't rock the boat, lifestyle.

    I think that the UK is set up for failure and believes that 'well you did your best' or 'well you gave is a go' is the expected result of any risk.

    As for a British Dream, maybe that is always to aspire to be, or have the benefits of, a Class higher than you acutally are, they call it 'getting ideas above ones station'. However it isn't possible, because even with all the money in the world a working class person will surely become a rich working class person not a middle class one and will be laughed at for trying to be.

  6. I think us Brits follow (or inspire) that Philip Larkin philosophy I mentioned in the last post - that if you don't hope for too much, you won't be disappointed when it doesn't happen but if and when it does, it's a huge grin!
    Although I am constantly aware of the mega-enthusiasm of Americans, I have never felt that deep down, they were any happier than any other race. They just think they are.

  7. It always seems to me that British dreams are more individual. It is more a case of the "American Dream" versus "British Dreams". Americans like to think of themselves as more individual but when I go back (I have lived in the UK for 30 years) there seems to be much more conformity.

    I set up a business a couple of years ago, which is (something I don't think I would have done in America for a whole host of reasons) and whilst researching that I was surprised to see that about twice as many British people set up businesses than Americans. Maybe that chance to strike out on your own path is part of British Dreams?

    Peter Bond

  8. Anon - very interesting points indeed. I think half of the British businesses are window cleaners. They are very thin on the ground over here in comparison!

  9. "Something better", "land of opportunity", "meritocracy" these are the key phrases above that capture the "American Dream". I don't know to what extent these currently exist in Britain relative to the US, but I do know from history that these concepts only survive in cultures embracing individual liberty and limited government.

    Speaking of which, I saw a house of commons session last night on Cspan. The hooting and howling and witty remarks. What a blast!


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