It's changed over the decades. And it's been beaten up and "bastardized" by opportunists.
Still, the proverbial American dream of self-made success and well-being is intact and remains important to most of us - we're downright protective of it, in fact.
More than three-fourths of Americans "personally believe" in the American dream and insist it's what makes the nation dynamic, according to a survey of 2,112 adults released Wednesday by J. Walter Thompson, a Manhattan-based marketing group.
Eight out of 10 want the next president to "breathe new life" into the concept, with more respondents citing Republican hopefuls than Democrats in such a lofty endeavor.
Who would do a "better job" of helping Americans achieve their dreams? More than half - 51 percent - cited Sen. John McCain and Gov. Sarah Palin, just squeaking by Sens. Barack Obama and Joseph R. Biden Jr., who garnered 49 percent. Mr. Obama was cited more than Mr. McCain as "an American dream story," 58 percent to 42 percent.
There's a partisan divide amid sentiment: 84 percent of Republicans compared with 71 percent of Democrats said they believed in the American dream.
Cynicism surfaced: 11 percent of the respondents said the federal government helped Americans prosper; about two-thirds said the nation assisted immigrants or other countries achieve success over its own citizens.
"A clear majority of Americans believe the American dream as a concept is misused by politicians, large corporations and the media - entities that have a lot of power in public life," the survey said. "The American dream has been bastardized."
It also risked "degenerating into little more than a shopping list of wanna-haves written on stars-and-stripes paper."
The research revealed that the dream itself could be evolving from Depression-era emphasis on hard work and middle-class values toward a more materialistic definition fueled by a celebrity culture and shallow media. Six out of 10 respondents said the concept is "different from what it used to be," while 41 percent said it was unchanged.
The traditional dream was driven by success based on merit, followed by middle-class values, hard work, community, pride, bravery and perseverance, according to the respondents. These days, major contributing factors are consumption, fame, quality and entitlement - followed by merit, middle-class values and community. Still, only a quarter said the concept was dated.
Almost half of the respondents said that determination, hope, perseverance and optimism are reasons why the American dream "endures." Laziness, lack of determination and self-discipline, insufficient education and lack of self-confidence are among the primary impediments.
The survey was conducted Sept. 11 to 19.