„I’m a journalist, so I like to look for the untold stories, the lives that quietly play out under the scream of headlines. I’ve also been going about the business of putting down roots, choosing a partner, making babies. So for the last few years, I’ve been trying to understand what constitutes the 21st-century good life, both because I’m fascinated by the moral and philosophical implications, but also because I’m in desperate need of answers myself.
We live in tenuous times. In fact, for the first time in American history, the majority of parents do not think that their kids will be better off than they were. This is true of rich and poor, men and women. Now, some of you might hear this and feel sad. After all, America is deeply invested in this idea of economic transcendence, that every generation kind of leapfrogs the one before it, earning more, buying more, being more. We’ve exported this dream all over the world, so kids in Brazil and China and even Kenya inherit our insatiable expectation for more. But when I read this historic poll for the first time, it didn’t actually make me feel sad. It felt like a provocation. “Better off” — based on whose standards?
Is “better off” finding a secure job that you can count on for the rest of your life? Those are nearly extinct. People move jobs, on average, every 4.7 years, and it’s estimated that by 2020, nearly half of Americans will be freelancers. OK, so is better off just a number? Is it about earning as much as you possibly can? By that singular measurement, we are failing. Median per capita income has been flat since about 2000, adjusted for inflation. All right, so is better off getting a big house with a white picket fence? Less of us are doing that. Nearly five million people lost their homes in the Great Recession, and even more of us sobered up about the lengths we were willing to go — or be tricked into going, in many predatory cases — to hold that deed. Home-ownership rates are at their lowest since 1995.
All right, so we’re not finding steady employment, we’re not earning as much money, and we’re not living in big fancy houses. Toll the funeral bells for everything that made America great. But, are those the best measurements of a country’s greatness, of a life well lived? What I think makes America great is its spirit of reinvention. In the wake of the Great Recession, more and more Americans are redefining what “better off” really means. Turns out, it has more to do with community and creativity than dollars and cents.
Now, let me be very clear: the 14.8 percent of Americans living in poverty need money, plain and simple. And all of us need policies that protect us from exploitation by employers and financial institutions. Nothing that follows is meant to suggest that the gap between rich and poor is anything but profoundly immoral. But, too often we let the conversation stop there. We talk about poverty as if it were a monolithic experience; about the poor as if they were solely victims. Part of what I’ve learned in my research and reporting is that the art of living well is often practiced most masterfully by the most vulnerable.
Now, if necessity is the mother of invention, recession can be the father of consciousness. It confronts us with profound questions, questions we might be too lazy or distracted to ask in times of relative comfort. How should we work? How should we live? All of us, whether we realize it or not, seek answers to these questions, with our ancestors kind of whispering in our ears.
My great-grandfather was a drunk in Detroit, who sometimes managed to hold down a factory job. He had, as unbelievable as it might sound, 21 children, with one woman, my great-grandmother, who died at 47 years old of ovarian cancer. Now, I’m pregnant with my second child, and I cannot even fathom what she must have gone through. And if you’re trying to do the math — there were six sets of twins. So my grandfather, their son, became a traveling salesman, and he lived boom and bust. So my dad grew up answering the door for debt collectors and pretending his parents weren’t home. He actually took his braces off himself with pliers in the garage, when his father admitted he didn’t have money to go back to the orthodontist. So my dad, unsurprisingly, became a bankruptcy lawyer. Couldn’t write this in a novel, right? He was obsessed with providing a secure foundation for my brother and I.
So I ask these questions by way of a few generations of struggle. My parents made sure that I grew up on a kind of steady ground that allows one to question and risk and leap. And ironically, and probably sometimes to their frustration, it is their steadfast commitment to security that allows me to question its value, or at least its value as we’ve historically defined it in the 21st century.
So let’s dig into this first question: How should we work? We should work like our mothers. That’s right – we’ve spent decades trying to fit women into a work world built for company men. And many have done backbends to fit in, but others have carved a more unconventional path, creating a patchwork of meaning and money with enough flexibility to do what they need to do for those that they love. My mom called it “just making it work.” Today I hear life coaches call it “a portfolio career.” Whatever you call it, more and more men are craving these whole, if not harried, lives. They’re waking up to their desire and duty to be present fathers and sons.
Now, artist Ann Hamilton has said, “Labor is a way of knowing.” Labor is a way of knowing. In other words, what we work on is what we understand about the world. If this is true, and I think it is, then women who have disproportionately cared for the little ones and the sick ones and the aging ones, have disproportionately benefited from the most profound kind of knowing there is: knowing the human condition. By prioritizing care, men are, in a sense, staking their claim to the full range of human existence.
Now, this means the nine-to-five no longer works for anyone. Punch clocks are becoming obsolete, as are career ladders. Whole industries are being born and dying every day. It’s all nonlinear from here. So we need to stop asking kids, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” and start asking them, “How do you want to be when you grow up?” Their work will constantly change. The common denominator is them. So the more they understand their gifts and create crews of ideal collaborators, the better off they will be.
The challenge ahead is to reinvent the social safety net to fit this increasingly fragmented economy.We need portable health benefits.We need policies that reflect that everyone deserves to be vulnerableor care for vulnerable others,without becoming destitute.We need to seriously consider a universal basic income.We need to reinvent labor organizing.The promise of a work world that is structured to actually fitour 21st century values,not some archaic idea about bringing home the bacon,is long overdue -just ask your mother.
Now, how about the second question: How should we live? We should live like our immigrant ancestors. When they came to America, they often shared apartments, survival tactics, child care – always knew how to fill one more belly, no matter how small the food available. But they were told that success meant leaving the village behind and pursuing that iconic symbol of the American Dream, the white picket fence. And even today, we see a white picket fence and we think success, self-possession. But when you strip away the sentimentality, what it really does is divides us. Many Americans are rejecting the white picket fence and the kind of highly privatized life that happened within it, and reclaiming village life, reclaiming interdependence instead.
Fifty million of us, for example, live in intergenerational households. This number exploded with the Great Recession, but it turns out people actually like living this way. Two-thirds of those who are living with multiple generations under one roof say it’s improved their relationships. Some people are choosing to share homes not with family, but with other people who understand the health and economic benefits of daily community. CoAbode, an online platform for single moms looking to share homes with other single moms, has 50,000 users. And people over 65 are especially prone to be looking for these alternative living arrangements. They understand that their quality of life depends on a mix of solitude and solidarity. Which is true of all of us when you think about it, young and old alike. For too long, we’ve pretended that happiness is a king in his castle. But all the research proves otherwise. It shows that the healthiest, happiest and even safest – in terms of both climate change disaster, in terms of crime, all of that – are Americans who live lives intertwined with their neighbors.
Now, I’ve experienced this firsthand. For the last few years, I’ve been living in a cohousing community. It’s 1.5 acres of persimmon trees, this prolific blackberry bush that snakes around a community garden, all smack-dab, by the way, in the middle of urban Oakland. The nine units are all built to be different, different sizes, different shapes, but they’re meant to be as green as possible. So big, shiny black solar cells on our roof mean our electricity bill rarely exceeds more than five bucks in a month. The 25 of us who live there are all different ages and political persuasions and professions, and we live in homes that have everything a typical home would have. But additionally, we share an industrial-sized kitchen and eating area, where we have common meals twice a week.
Now, people, when I tell them I live like this, often have one of two extreme reactions. Either they say, “Why doesn’t everyone live like this?” Or they say, “That sounds totally horrifying. I would never want to do that.” So let me reassure you: there is a sacred respect for privacy among us, but also a commitment to what we call “radical hospitality” – not the kind advertised by the Four Seasons, but the kind that says that every single person is worthy of kindness, full stop, end of sentence.
The biggest surprise for me of living in a community like this? You share all the domestic labor – the repairing, the cooking, the weeding – but you also share the emotional labor. Rather than depending only on the idealized family unit to get all of your emotional needs met, you have two dozen other people that you can go to to talk about a hard day at work or troubleshoot how to handle an abusive teacher. Teenagers in our community will often go to an adult that is not their parent to ask for advice. It’s what bell hooks called “revolutionary parenting,”this humble acknowledgmentthat kids are healthier when they have a wider range of adultsto emulate and count on.Turns out, adults are healthier, too.It’s a lot of pressure,trying to be that perfect family behind that white picket fence.
The “new better off,” as I’ve come to call it, is less about investing in the perfect family and more about investing in the imperfect village, whether that’s relatives living under one roof, a cohousing community like mine, or just a bunch of neighbors who pledge to really know and look out for one another. It’s good common sense, right? And yet, money has often made us dumb about reaching out. The most reliable wealth is found in relationship.
The new “better off” is not an individual prospect at all. In fact, if you’re a failure or you think you’re a failure, I’ve got some good news for you: you might be a success by standards you have not yet honored. Maybe you’re a mediocre earner but a masterful father. Maybe you can’t afford your dream home, but you throw legendary neighborhood parties. If you’re a textbook success, the implications of what I’m saying could be more grim for you. You might be a failure by standards you hold dear, but that the world doesn’t reward. Only you can know.
I know that I am not a tribute to my great-grandmother, who lived such a short and brutish life, if I earn enough money to afford every creature comfort. You can’t buy your way out of suffering or into meaning. There is no home big enough to erase the pain that she must have endured. I am a tribute to her if I live a life as connected and courageous as possible. In the midst of such widespread uncertainty, we may, in fact, be insecure. But we can let that insecurity make us brittle or supple. We can turn inward, lose faith in the power of institutions to change – even lose faith in ourselves. Or we can turn outward, cultivate faith in our ability to reach out, to connect, to create.
Turns out, the biggest danger is not failing to achieve the American Dream. The biggest danger is achieving a dream that you don’t actually believe in. So don’t do that. Do the harder, more interesting thing, which is to compose a life where what you do every single day, the people you give your best love and ingenuity and energy to, aligns as closely as possible with what you believe. That, not something as mundane as making money, is a tribute to your ancestors. That is the beautiful struggle.”