May 09, 2022

“Dream Big!”: Inequality in Dreams of the Future

Jenny Enos author photoBy Jenny Enos 

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

Most children and teenagers are asked this question countless of times by well-meaning parents, teachers, and friends. They are often told that anything is possible, and that they can be absolutely anything they want to be.

Some may dream of becoming the next Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, or just some nebulous kind of “celebrity”; others may dream of becoming a doctor, veterinarian, or zookeeper. “Dream big!” is the mantra espoused by many parents who, often aware of the low likelihood of the outcome, nonetheless feel pressure to encourage their children’s dreams. Parenting guides even tell parents to fight the urge to fact-check or reality-check what their children dream of.

Of course, most of these dreams never come true. In part, this is because dreams rarely involve any realistic or strategic planning around how the dream will be achieved. For example, my dream to become a dolphin trainer as a child was not something I ever actively pursued – even though I certainly could have.

In this sense, dreams are different from aspirations, which often imply realistic and strategic steps toward realization. Rather, dreams are focused on the end goal; suddenly waking up and being that dolphin trainer or the new Elon Musk, without thinking about the work that needs to be accomplished before that end goal is achieved. The dream of being something (or someone) is less about what we ultimately think we could do with our lives, and more about who we are at our core and what sort of life we believe we deserve.

As sociologists, we also have to consider another – and perhaps more important – reason as to why most dreams do not come true: inequality of opportunity. For example, it is more likely that a white, upper-class child achieves their dream of being a doctor than it is that their Black, working-class peers do so. We know that race and class constrain opportunities throughout the life course, particularly through inequalities in education – which is a key vehicle of upward mobility.

From the onset of their education, poor and minority students are segregated into the least well-funded school districts where resources, quality teachers, and safety are lacking. If college can even be of consideration for these students, the college application process (including the SATs) significantly disadvantage poor students and students of color. Then, once in college, increasingly unaffordable tuition and class-biased financial aid can sink students into insurmountable debt or force them to drop out. For these students, telling them to “dream big!” doesn’t help all that much.

So in this sense, we can see that dream achievement can be inhibited by stratification. But what about our dreams, in and of themselves? Are all dreams “created equal”?

No, write Karen A. Cerulo and Janet M. Ruane in their recently published article in Sociological Forum entitled “Future Imaginings: Public and Personal Culture, Social Location, and the Shaping of Dreams.” Using data from focus groups and interviews with a wide range of people, they find that one’s “social location” – experiences based on characteristics like race, class, and gender – shapes one’s dreams about the future.

Overall, they argue that those in privileged social locations, like those who are white and upper-class, construct their dreams with positive “cultural scripts” or commonly held assumptions, like “anything is possible” or “dream big!” At the same time, those in less privileged social locations tend to construct their dreams along negative cultural scripts, such as believing that the social structure is “rigged” and stacked against those who already have less.

It is quite staggering to think that even our dreams of the future, which are so profoundly personal and imaginary, can be influenced and shaped by inequality and social forces. In many ways, however, this study exemplifies the promise of sociology – to uncover the patterned social structures underneath our believed-to-be individual and personal experiences, thoughts, and desires. It truly is the sociological future imagination.


Some people are able to fulfill their dreams when they grow up. But others may not. It can be affected by many factors. Maybe due to the impact of the environment, due to circumstances, I have lost my determination to fulfill my dreams.... Personally, I have always wanted to fulfill my dreams, but so far, everything is still foot mile in place. to begin with, sadly. I hope everyone can make your dreams come true

It's really interesting to discover that many of what we call independent-personal decisions are in fact a product of sociological factors.
This article have opened my eyes to the "wonderful" effect of inequity.

Not only is a dream a running track, but a dream also shows us the value of human time. Just a minute we are negligent, hesitant we can lose our dream even though it is within reach, because dreams are like a sprint, just one second faster than others is enough to We do miracles and being one second behind others also makes us losers. And dreams do not come to us easily, but sometimes we also need the help of those around us. It's like a relay race, if the individual only concentrates on completing his run without coordinating with his teammates, it is difficult for us to win.

I believe a lot of people will be like to read this article!

Many thanks for the insightful information you provided. It has been difficult for me to come up with numerous queries pertaining to this matter. I will follow you!

Since childhood, I have dreamed of becoming a pilot, so I am trying very hard to make this dream come true.

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