An Altered American Dream and Defining the ‘New Better Off’
What does it mean to be “well off”? Is it financial achievement, the amassing of nice things, successfully raising a family? Courtney Martin, the author of The New Better Off (Seal Press, 2016), examines the concepts of success and personal happiness for future generations, who are likely to be less wealthy—at least in the traditional sense—than their parents.
Martin is an accomplished writer and speaker who explores topics related to feminism and social justice. She is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network, Valenti Martin Media and FRESH Speakers Bureau. Martin is also Editor Emeritus at Feministing.com, a weekly columnist for On Being, and author or editor of six books. Her work appears frequently in national publications including The New York Times and Washington Post.
The following is an excerpt from the introduction of The New Better Off.
Courtney Martin spoke on a panel about racism and patriarchy at the 2017 Bioneers conference.
For the first time in history, nearly two-thirds of Americans do not believe that the next generation will be “better off” than their parents are—an opinion shared by men and women, rich and poor alike.
To some, that may sound sad. To me, it sounds like a provocation. Better off? Based on whose standards?
To be sure, people need jobs. They need housing. They need healthcare. When these basic needs aren’t met—and for too many Americans they aren’t—we are legitimately not better off.
But for many of us, the concept of “better off” is far more abstract than just putting food on the table. Is “better off” a fancy job title, a bank account with more zeros, a manicured lawn? It turns out that none of those things automatically makes you safe or happy, as evidenced by the Great Recession, when the ground underneath so many Americans’ feet shifted overnight. And, what’s more, some of the things we have historically associated with success actually endanger your health. Underneath the appearance of uplift, a complex story weighs us down. This could play out in any number of ways, like when people decide to erase their ethnic last names; or they set aside authentic—albeit nontraditional—career ambitions in favor of more lucrative paths; or when a father knows his colleagues better than he does his own kids; or a mother who leans in so hard she falls flat on her face. Pressure and debt, missed get-togethers, living for the weekends, living someone else’s dream. “Better off,” left uninterrogated, can be fucking dangerous.
For me, this is not just a societally important matter, but one with personal significance. I was just minding my own business—sweating on subway platforms at 2:00 am and getting weepy over rejection emails from editors and losing track of time while laying on blankets with dear friends in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park and dreaming about the person I would one day be, and then—all the sudden—I was that person. Otherwise known as an adult. I had a husband (something I never thought I’d have). I had a daughter (something I always thought I’d have). I had a job. Well, actually, a lot of jobs. I had a car payment. I had no small amount of frustration when the kid next door played his music too loud on a weeknight (to be fair, it was pretty awful music).
And I had a problem. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to become a responsible person. I’ve always been sort of an old soul—watching Oprah with a bag of Ruffles potato chips after middle school so I could try on all the grown-up emotions of her guests. Commitment doesn’t send me scurrying like it does some people. I like feeling needed. I like being accountable. I believe in sensible shoes.
The problem was that I didn’t want to become an adult if it meant falling in line. I didn’t want to get golden handcuffs or check my email every two seconds because I was so “important.” I didn’t want to laugh with my girlfriends about how sexless my marriage was over wine at book group—or stay married for the kids. I didn’t want to let myself off the hook because activism is for young people, or utter that familiar, ugly phrase: “do as I say, not as I do.” I didn’t want to stop having euphoric experiences or long, wandering philosophical conversations. I didn’t want to get a good job, a house with a white picket fence, have 2.5 kids, and then just . . . go . . . to . . . sleep.
And as it turned out, the white picket fence was beyond my reach anyway—as it is beyond the reach of so many people. When the economy plummeted in 2007, it robbed so many Americans, especially the young, of some of the experiences that—up until that point—were widely considered the cornerstones of a successful adult life. Suddenly, owning a home and having a nine-to-five job were stripped of their former glimmer, revealed to be more complicated and maybe even less satisfying than we’d been told. People put off getting married, in part, because they felt like they were supposed to be somebody else when they did it—somebody more financially secure, more established, more sure.
In other words, when the economy crashed, the air was let out of the overinflated ego of the so-called American Dream. I had been scared of what adulthood might do to the state of my soul; I feared chasing symbols of success rather than creating conditions for meaning and joy and justice. But—as fate would have it—the symbols were outrunning everyone.
Since then, so many people continue to reevaluate, turning away from job opportunities that are prestigious but not courageous, making families out of friends and neighbors, buying less, giving away more, sharing and renting rather than owning, reinventing rituals and ritualizing reinvention. So many people are looking compassionately and critically at their own parents’ lives and choosing to do things differently, sometimes even reclaiming edifying, abandoned, elements of their grandparents’ lives.
When I was in my early twenties, my mom gave me a copy of Mary Catherine Bateson’s Composing a Life. In it Bateson, the daughter of anthropologists Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, writes profiles of five, diverse women with the goal of turning their lives inside out, showing what it really takes to put a day together when you are a passionate person with only twenty-four hours. I devoured it, writing in the margins and putting sticky notes in places where Bateson took my breath away. And then all of my girlfriends read it, each one passing it on to the next.
As I look back, I realize that it took such hold of us because it was the only book we’d ever encountered that described the nitty-gritty of real, somewhat contemporary lives (at that point, 2002, the portraits were over a decade old). To these women, even structural problems—like the sexist workplace—weren’t inevitably crushing, but fodder for subterfuge and rebellion. And Composing a Life was written from a place of deep delight in the capacity of ordinary people to pursue meaning and joy in challenging circumstances. In Bateson’s telling, that we are made even more determined, even more creative by those kinds of circumstances. The book treats “composing a life” as a creative, ongoing opportunity, not a test to be passed. Bateson writes:
I believe that our aesthetic sense, whether in works of art or in lives, has overfocused on the stubborn struggle toward a single goal rather than on the fluid, the protean, the improvisatory. We see achievement as purposeful and monolithic, like the sculpting of a massive tree trunk that has first to be brought from the forest and then shaped by long labor to assert the artist’s vision, rather than something crafted from odds and ends, like a patchwork quilt, and lovingly used to warm different nights and different bodies.
The phrase “new better off” is the shorthand I’ve created for this bourgeoning shift in Americans’ ideas about the good life. It’s the patchwork quilt version of the American Dream, not the (phallic) sculpture reaching high into the sky. It’s about our quest to use our current precarity as the inspiration to return to some of the most basic, “beginner’s mind” questions: What is enough money? How do we want to spend our finite energy and attention? What makes us feel accountable and witnessed? It’s about creating a life you can be genuinely proud of, an “examined life” (in the words of dead Greek guys), a life that you are challenged by, a life that makes you giddy, that sometimes surprises you, a life that you love.
It’s leaving a job that pays well but makes you feel like a cog for a freelance life that makes you feel like a creator—the financial highs and lows be damned. It’s sharing a car with a few friends and learning how to repair your favorite pair of jeans. It’s moving in with your grandmother because she needs someone to reach the highest shelf in the kitchen and you need someone who helps you keep our turbulent times in perspective. It’s putting your cell phone in a drawer on Saturday afternoon and having the best conversation of your life that night. It’s starting a group for new dads where you admit how powerful and confusing it is to raise a tiny human.
But lest I fall into the same trap of all those who idealize bootstraps, the New Better Off mentality is not solely about the individual. It’s also about the collective. Playwright Tony Kushner writes: “The smallest indivisible human unit is two people, not one; one is a fiction. From such nets of souls societies, the social world, human life springs.”
So, yes, this book is about the brave individual choices people are making, but it’s also about the movements, formal and informal, that are coalescing around the New Better Off mindset—about how people are reinventing the social safety net, and reforming the laws that have prevented us from sharing and reclaiming communal rituals. A surprising coalition of people—from labor organizers to start-up entrepreneurs to legislators—are coming together to push for portable health benefits. A small but growing group of lawyers are agitating for laws that make it easier to start co-op businesses and create communally owned homes. All over the country groups of young people who are grieving the loss of parents are gathering for dinner, to talk about grief as well as about what is being born in them through their loss. Essentially, this book’s message can be conveyed in one phrase: community is everything.
The New Better Off mindset compels you to be wise, to be vulnerable enough to admit that you have limitations, and to surround yourself with people who will take care of you and vice versa. But it’s not just about need. It’s also about fun—unscripted relationships that evolve over years and years; spontaneous, gut-busting laughter; bread and dogma broken with debates around a dinner table. Communities are joy. There’s an almost giddy energy when something as simple as a book club gathers in someone’s living room. Sure, wine flows as people are discussing the text, but it’s not just that; they’re also following the arc of one another’s lives. One of the things that has thrilled me to no end while working on this book is meeting so many impatient, innovative people who are actively figuring out how to reclaim community.
We may be artists of our own lives, as Bateson tells it, but we are not self-made men and women. We live in communities, and beyond that, we live in polities. Part of the New Better Off mindset is also about structural transformation. Systems thinkers and agitators and designers are asking: what would an America look like where all people’s basic needs are met—where more people have the luxury of making choices about the kind of work they do, the kind of homes they live in, the kinds of families they create?
To be sure, the “creating a beautiful life” portion of the New Better Off mindset is about our personal choices, but it’s also about the neighborhood and city and state and nation that we live in, and what their policies say about our rights and responsibilities. One of the sicknesses of privilege is the mistaken belief that we are all islands—when really we are archipelagos. Technology that makes it easier for young, white guys to order a tuna melt is not an example of living the New Better Off life; it’s just a business venture. But technology that makes it easier for everyone to find affordable, high-quality healthcare? That is the New Better Off.
We don’t create this little life in a finite moment in time. We create our lives informed by our parents and our grandparents and all the decisions they made in the America (or the Mexico or the Iran or the Ethiopia) that they came of age in. Or, as author Paul Elie puts it, “We enter the story in the middle.” In this manner, while the New Better Off mentality is about the continuous exploration of what is in front of us, it’s also a fascination and sober reckoning with what lies behind us. Who has lived in these neighborhoods? Who has worshipped in these halls? What worked about the way they built community? Can it be recaptured, maybe even made more effective with modern tools or notions? What was alienating and even discriminatory in these communities? Are there opportunities for reconciliation?
We used to answer these questions within formal institutions— churches, rotary clubs, Junior Leagues, unions—but many of these groups have lost the centrifugal pull they once enjoyed. Many of the authorities we used to rely on to guide us toward the good life no longer exist. Many of the straightforward paths have been bulldozed, or are overgrown with weeds. Many of the institutions have crumbled, destroyed by their own stubborn insistence on doing things as they’ve always been done. The safety net has been torn—and the ladder to success has fallen down.
The demographic makeup of this country is shifting in profound ways. Women now constitute a full half of the professional workforce. By 2044, whites—the majority source of our most dominant and toxic narratives about achievement—will have become a racial minority. And the percentage of Americans that doesn’t identify with any particular religion has grown sharply in recent years.5 The demography “rule book” is written in the language of another era.
If you feel like a failure, it might be that you’re considering yourself against standards that just don’t hold water anymore. Sure, many consider it a sign of success to own a home, but that yardstick got its best traction when the average middle-class man’s salary could support an entire family—something we all know no longer applies. The good news is that you might just be a success based on New Better Off standards, which perhaps you’ve had a hard time articulating but have been bravely grappling toward. Maybe you’re a mediocre earner but a masterful father. Or maybe you can’t afford your dream home but you throw legendary neighborhood parties.
This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from The New Better Off by Courtney Martin, published by Seal Press, 2016.