Are we living the good lifeand what defines 'good,' anyway? Americans today are constructing a completely different framework for success than their parents' generation, using new metrics that TED speaker and On Being columnist Courtney Martin has termed collectively the "New Better Off." The New Better Off puts a name to the American phenomenon of rejecting the traditional dream of a 9-to-5 job, home ownership, and a nuclear family structureilluminating the alternate ways Americans are seeking happiness and success.
Including commentary on recent changes in how we view work, customs and community, marriage, rituals, money, living arrangements, and spirituality, The New Better Off uses personal stories and social analysis to explore the trends shaping our country today. Martin covers growing topics such as freelancing, collaborative consumption, communal living, and the breaking down of gender roles.
The New Better Off is about the creative choices individuals are making in their vocational and personal lives, but it’s also about the movements, formal and informal, that are coalescing around the New Better Off ideapeople who are reinventing the social safety net and figuring out how to truly better their own communities.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
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, 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, “better off” is far more abstract than 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 make 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 downethnic last names erased, authentic, albeit nontraditional, career ambitions set aside for something more lucrative, a father who knows his colleagues better than his own kids, a mother who leans in so hard she falls flat on her face, a lot of pressure and debt, a lack of presence, living for the weekends, living someone else’s dream. “Better off,” left un-interrogated, can be fucking dangerous.
For me, this is not just a societally important matter, but one with personal significance as well. I was just minding my own businesssweating on subway platforms at 2am 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 thenall the suddenI 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, I think it was pretty bad 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 soulwatching 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 convinced 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, and 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 thatup until that pointwere widely considered the cornerstones of a successful adult life. Suddenly, owning a home and having a 9-to-5 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 itsomebody 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, butas fate would have itthe 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.
Table of Contents
How Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up?: Thinking Differently About Vocation
Working Alone, Together: Flexibility and Friendship in a Freelance Era
Norma Raes for a New Century: How Labor, Power, and Care are Being Remade
The Wisdom of Enough: Making Sound Financial Decisions in a Culture that Overvalues Money
Fighting to be Whole: How Men are Falling in Love with Fathering
Harnessing the Wind: Directing Attention Where It Matters Most in an Age of Distraction
The End of “Mine”: How Our Relationship to Ownership is Changing
Tearing the White Picket Fence Down: The End of Our Romanticization with Ownership and the Reclamation of Community
Re-growing Our Roots: The Power and Complexity of Investing in Your Local Community
Ritual Remixed: How We Make Meaning and Mark Moments Amidst the Chaos of Modern Life
The Thread of Revelation: How to Create Communities that Make Us Ask the Hard Questions