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Do We Need to Redefine 'Better Off'?

Most Americans do not believe that the next generation will be “better off” than their parents. But what does that mean?

The new "better off" will probably not look like the old "better off." (Alden Jewell/flickr)

Courtney Martin introduces her new book, The New Better Off, with this staggering statistic: nearly two-thirds of Americans do not believe that the next generation will be “better off” than their parents.

That reality provoked Martin to probe more deeply into what the expression “better off” really means to our society. Ultimately,The New Better Off proposes a more holistic view of human happiness, rather than the hamster-wheel of work and money that drives our modern idea of success. I liked the book so much I blurbed it, and Martin recently took some time to answer a few questions from CityLab.

Courtney E. Martin’s The New Better Off. (Seal Press)

How did your own life experience inform the concept of the “new better off” and the new book?

As I inched toward my 30s, I started to look around and wonder what I actually wanted my "adult" life to look like. It felt like there were so many confusing messages about what mattered most. Then the bottom fell out of the economy and it really helped me look harder at so many of the symbols of success that I'd been raised to believe were important—home ownership, fancy job, etc. I realized that what I really wanted was a life defined by the quality of my relationships and my capacity to do work that really matters to me. I consistently write the book I need to read. It's a way of exploring these topics for myself, and hoping they help other people lead more intentional lives, too.

The conventional wisdom says that Millennials will be the first generation to be worse off than their parents. Do you agree? What’s your take on that?

I think we need to redefine "better off." We may, in fact, have less money. Fewer of us will own homes. Millennial men, in particular, will probably lead lives that are much more focused on domestic tasks and care-taking than the lives their fathers, and certainly grandfathers did. But to my mind, none of that is inherently negative. It's an opportunity to re-evaluate how much money, house deeds, and job status actually matter in the larger picture of how you want to spend your finite energy and time.

In an age of increased freelancing and contingent or even precarious work, how is the new better off taking shape in the workplace? Are we looking at a lifestyle that’s liberated from the 9-to-5, or an era of precarity, of trying to cobble together a living by stringing together gig after gig?

We're looking at both. I'm a case in point: I have never in my 15 years of work had employer-provided health insurance or a 401(k). So precarity has been my daily existence. I've made it through thanks to the Freelancers Union, and more recently, Obamacare, and lots of smart financial decisions (like keeping my standard of living really low, especially in my 20s, and saving for those estimated tax payments!). On the other hand, I've had incredible flexibility to work where I want, when I want, with whom I want (of course, I paid lots of dues early on).

One of my favorite reporting projects in the book was looking at how the social safety net and labor organizing are being re-invented. Co-working is also a huge and growing movement that is allowing individual workers to find community. There are some really important and moral fights for more stability (like reliable work hours and a higher minimum wage) that we can't neglect, but at the same time, we need to admit that the work world is changing and then think about how the structure of benefits has to change along with it.

We have long used money to measure success. How is that changing? How should we think about success and happiness as more than money?

We're too wise for such a reductive equation: money = success.
There are plenty of people who are wildly successful—who love their work, who have huge influence—who actually don't make that much money. Likewise, there are plenty of people who make a ton of money and are miserable. Social scientists report that there is a happiness plateau at $75,000, adjusted for where you live regionally. Make less than that, and you can logically pursue making more. Make any more than that and you're essentially chasing status rather than actual happiness.

I think the most lasting wealth is to be found in relationships. Figure out how much money you need to feel relatively secure and then be very strategic about who you invest in, including family, friends, neighbors, and collaborators.

I’m the proud father of an 11-month-old. How is parenting changing in the new better off?

I think the most profound changes are happening with fathers. Men are waking up to their responsibility and right to be present, caring parents, and it's changing the public conversation about work/life balance (previously thought to be a women's issue). I love the quote by the artist Ann Hamilton: "Labor is a way of knowing." I think a lot of men, not all, are finally really waking up to this and realizing that parenting is the best way we have of truly knowing the human condition. It's hard, but it's also profoundly meaningful. Men don't want to miss out on that anymore.

Home-ownership used to be at the center of the American Dream. You talk about the demise of ownership and the “end of mine.” How is the role of housing as the cornerstone of the American Dream changing today?

Home-ownership was the emperor with no clothes during the Great Recession. Sure, there is more theoretical security in owning rather than renting a home, but there are a lot of liabilities to owning a home, too (particularly one you can't actually afford). You get stuck in one place. You have to invest a large proportion of your wealth in that home. Housing prices are unpredictable. You have lots of costs to maintain a house and pay taxes. It's not to say that home ownership isn't a worthwhile goal, but it's not the right move for everyone all the time (which is sort of the default thinking).

There's a big spectrum of community that you can create in your life. You can do something simple, like creating a dinner co-op with some friends—for example, you all commit to making extra batches of your dinner on a given night and delivering to folks, and they do the same for you on alternate evenings. You can do something highly complex, like create a co-housing community. In such a community, everyone has their own home, but also shares a kitchen and eating area, garden, etc., where they share a common life. The important thing is not to assume that it will just happen. I've found that you really do need to be intentional about creating rituals around community or life gets too busy and messy to make it happen reliably.

You devote a chapter to “re-growing our roots.” How is our relationship to our communities changing? What can we do to develop a stronger, more meaningful relationship to the places we live, and help them be even better and derive even greater happiness from them?

In my reporting, I found that people are really gravitating back towards the local—local food, local community, local investing. As globalized as the world is, and in fact, perhaps because it's become so globalized, people are remembering how critical it is to know your neighbors and experience the daily kindness of public life on the city streets. Research shows that having local connections makes people safer, both in terms of crime and natural disaster, but it's something even less transactional than that. I think people crave the emotional connection of being from a place and from "a people," as it were.

If the white picket fence was the old symbol of the American dream, what should the next generation look to as a sign that they’re better off?

Rather than having a symbol—the white picket fence, the fancy car, the big house—the next generation needs to measure their quality of life on symbiosis. How is the health of my relationships? How intentional am I able to be with my time and presence? Do I feel like I belong somewhere beautiful? These are the new questions we can ask ourselves about a life well lived.

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