Courtney E. Martin opens The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream with the fact that “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.” Martin is not bemoaning that new reality, though; she is redefining the meaning of “better off” and embracing the opportunities the new version offers.
The next generation is failing to be “better off” than their parents only if we accept rigid and outdated measures of success. The prevailing notions of “making it” are familiar ones: the winners have stable, high-paying jobs that reward them with the opportunity to make even more money and buy more and more stuff; they live with a spouse and kids in the suburbs in detached single-family homes that they own; their schedules are crammed with obligations; and their hands are holding the latest devices.
The conditions of contemporary life, including a challenging job market and housing market, can make such purported accomplishments seem elusive. But when the standard varieties of success are not readily attainable, something magical can happen: People can lead thoughtful, intentional, authentic lives. They can make life choices that enable them to live meaningfully and in accord with their deepest values.
The New Better Off is a book of profound questions. Although it is a serious book, the author does not take herself too seriously. She writes engagingly and with great wit. She shares stories from her own life as well as relevant social science research as she takes readers along on a moving exploration of how we can all create our own version of the good life.
Each of the chapters in The New Better Off creatively examines an essential element of contemporary life. The topics include job choices; forging friendships when so many people are freelancing and have no office water cooler to gather around; finding ways to create a social safety net when so many are freelancers with no retirement benefits or health insurance; honoring values and goals that are not just monetary; falling in love with fatherhood; going all-in on an economy based on sharing rather than ownership; creating community; investing in local communities; and inventing rituals that mark meaningful moments. The final chapter (other than the conclusion) opens with the question, “How do you know if you are a good person?”
Central to The New Better Off is the significance of community. Martin loves her ties with other people. Creating community is one of her many talents. But the matter is not just personal. Among the research she mentions are studies showing that one of the best predictors of whether a neighborhood will be violent is not the level of poverty or its racial composition, but whether there is trust and reciprocity among the people who live there. Similarly, the communities most likely to weather actual storms such as hurricanes and heat waves are the ones in which neighbors know and care about one another.
In the pages of The New Better Off, we meet people who illustrate the many innovative ways of creating community in twenty-first century America. For example, there are people trying to put together a portfolio of gigs who have no workplace, so they create coworking spaces to share with others in similar situations. There are groups of men who get together regularly to reflect on important life questions. There are cohousing communities, such as the one where the author lives in Oakland, California (also described in my own book, How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century). There are groups who gather around a table to break bread and share their stories of loss and grief.
Martin is married and has a young daughter but she is not selling the standard ideology of marriage and family. “I think that depending on your nuclear family to meet all of your needs is unhealthy,” she tells us. Her chapter on reimagining rituals poses this question: “So many of our modern rituals are tied to marriage and children — but what becomes of someone who doesn’t want either?” What follows is a touching and validating story of a non-wedding event created by a single woman in which she celebrated the community she had nurtured throughout her life (her “tribe”) and asked them for their ongoing love and support.
To people who can barely earn enough to avoid poverty and live with a modicum of dignity, the questions posed by The New Better Off would probably seem fanciful. It takes some level of privilege to be able to line up different versions of the good life and choose the most fulfilling one. Martin does not believe we should have an impoverished class. She argues forcefully for a universal basic income.
If Courtney Martin’s vision of the new better off took hold, more and more people would be “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.” Her version of the good life is not for everyone. For many, though, it has the potential to be inspiring and life-changing.
The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream
Seal Press, September 2016
Hardcover, 304 pages