The New Better Off

Reinventing the American Dream


By Courtney E. Martin

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Are we living the good life—and what defines 'good', anyway?

Americans today are constructing a completely different framework for success than their parents' generation, using new metrics that TEDWomen speaker and columnist Courtney Martin has termed collectively the "New Better Off". The New Better Offputs a name to the American phenomenon of rejecting the traditional dream of a 9-to-5 job, home ownership, and a nuclear family structure, illuminating 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 Offis 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" idea-people who are reinventing the social safety net and figuring out how to truly better their own communities.


how do you want to be?


Many of us grew up being told that getting a good job is about pinpointing a passion and sticking to it. There’s a whole industry devoted to this outdated methodology of “career development”; freaked-out twentysomethings sit in front of glowing screens and peck away at “career cluster surveys” to try to unlock the mystery of what they should do with the rest of their lives. In the Old Better Off mentality, profession is seen as a puzzle to be solved, once and only once.

Though the old framing—find a secure job that doesn’t bore you to death and do it until you’re sixty-five—is well-intentioned, it’s ultimately unhelpful in a time when the “what” of almost everything is melting down, mixing together, and being reconstituted in newfangled forms.

Sure, there are still lawyers and teachers, but where and how these people work are changing all the time. You might be trained as a lawyer but spend your days advising reproductive-justice organizations on bioethics, or you may be a teacher who coaches other educators on creating emotionally intelligent, culturally aware urban schools. People who work in a variety of fields—called “silo-busters” by anthropologist-turned-business-journalist Gillian Tett—used to be thought of as flighty for jumping around, but now they’re described as having “job vitality.” They’re able to translate between different departments, bring specialized knowledge or practices from one field to the other, and consistently offer the critical perspective of the outsider looking in.1

Jobs are dying (RIP travel agents) and being born (hello, digital risk officer) all the time. The latest studies suggest that the average person has been with his or her current job for just 4.6 years.2 And though the elite media often make it sound like people change jobs more frequently by choice—operating with a “move on” mentality—in fact those decisions are guided by a variety of factors, most of them beyond workers’ control, including technological advancements, the declining power of unions, and increased international trade.3 Anya Kamenetz writes in Fast Company: “This decline in average job tenure is bigger than any economic cycle, bigger than any particular industry, bigger than differences in education levels, and bigger than differences in gender.”4

So if you can’t count on one job or one field, what can you count on?

You can count on your own curiosity, about both your gifts and your interests. 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?” You’re much safer cultivating a healthy sense of detachment from the details of where you work and what you work on, instead pursuing skills that excite you and learning things that interest you. When you’re intimately familiar with how you see, solve, organize, empower, communicate, build, tear down, evaluate, and create, you’ll know how to be effective no matter what setting you find yourself in.

Sound complicated? It is. It would be way easier to inherit the family business, to do what your mother or father did, to think of your job as a paycheck and retirement security. But we don’t live in that world anymore. At least most of us don’t. For too long politicians and career counselors have described the professional path to the American Dream as a ladder stretching into the sky, and the only way to succeed is to climb higher than everyone else. Bullshit, I say. It’s not bootstraps that we need; it’s lie detectors.

It would be way simpler to respond to some pithy questions that pop up on a screen and let the computer calculate the answer on what the hell you’re supposed to do with your life. But there is no computer with that kind of intelligence. The knowledge lives inside you. It lights up when you’re in that moment of feeling maximally and joyfully used in the world.


Teresa Hernandez, a Los Angeleno in her early twenties, pulls steaming macaroni and cheese out of the oven and sets it on an oven mitt on the humble kitchen table. Diedre looks expectantly at the steam as it rises; her roommate, Juan, laughs at her childlike exuberance. They’re both in their seventies. They’re broken. But nothing makes them happier than a visit from their angelito.

Teresa is their home healthcare aide (she’s listed in the directory provided by the government program In-Home Supportive Services, popularly known as IHSS). Juan had filed an application and been granted a few hours of help a month, and he had selected her from the directory. The problem was that Teresa was already booked up with other clients. But there was something about his voice when he called—she just couldn’t say no over the phone. She decided to go in person.

It was a thirty-minute drive from her home in Riverside, California, to Juan and Dierdre’s apartment. When she arrived, she found total disarray. “Here he was—this sweet old man who could barely stand up,” she remembers. “He was trying to keep things clean, but it was really obvious that he needed help. Medicine was all over. He was only eating oatmeal because he was unable to cook anything else.”

The saddest part was he was actually better off than his roommate, Dierdre, who was bedridden from a back condition. She wasn’t even aware that she was eligible for the IHSS program, which is available for people with a disability who have Medi-Cal and are expected to continue longer than a year. So Juan had become her assistant, making her oatmeal alongside his in the microwave. When Teresa told Dierdre about the program, she wept. “I was sitting there thinking, ‘How did I end up with a perfect stranger crying in my arms?’” Teresa admits. “But it felt good. It felt amazing, actually. I said, ‘Don’t cry. You should smile. I’m here. I’m going to help you.’”

There are going to be more and more people like them who need help in the coming years. According to the Administration on Aging, in 2013 there were 44.7 million people sixty-five and older; by 2060, there will be more than twice that number.5 It is estimated that we will need 1.8 million additional home healthcare workers in the next decade to meet the demand. Caregiving, so long disparaged as “women’s work” and often performed for low wages or no pay at all, just might be the boom industry of the twenty-first century.

But most home healthcare workers aren’t making a living wage: the average earns about $10 an hour. In California the mean salary for home healthcare attendants, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, is $26,140.6 Ai-jen Poo, labor organizer and MacArthur “genius” grant winner, argues that the “elder boom” is actually a beautiful opportunity for this country to employ millions of the most marginalized Americans, particularly women and immigrants, while caring about our elders. In The Age of Dignity: Preparing for the Elder Boom in a Changing America, she writes, “The demographic shift creates a moment when we can set in place a system to affirm the dignity of people at every stage of life and from every walk of life, and create millions of good jobs in the process.”

Teresa, in fact, makes nothing from her work with Juan and Dierdre, as she isn’t their official aide. She’s helped Juan advocate with his social worker to get more than three hours of assistance a month, and has started Dierdre on the process of enrolling in Medi-Cal so she can get assistance as well. When their paperwork comes through, Teresa will introduce them to a home healthcare attendant who has more hours to spare than she does. In the meantime, she makes the drive once a week, bringing a hot dinner to share family-style, and keeping things clean and medications in order.

It’s hard for Teresa to say exactly why she does it. She’s not religious. “It’s sad to say, but I lost my faith when I came back to the U.S.,” she says.

Though Teresa was born in Los Angeles, she spent her formative years in Mexico, living with her disabled father and her older brother. In 2009 they returned to California, this time landing farther north. The transition wasn’t easy. Teresa was responsible for her father’s care while her brother went to school and work. Then she developed hypothyroidism. She was tired all the time, but couldn’t sleep at night. Her blood pressure and cholesterol spiked. Her doctor warned that he would have to hospitalize her if she experienced any more stress.

But sometimes stress shows up on your doorstep. One day, a stranger walked right into her living room. She was frightened at first, but quickly realized that the woman was drunk and lost. When she wandered back out intending to drive away, Teresa rushed after her. “We’re friends, right?” she said to the woman. “Why don’t you come inside and hang out?”

The woman, totally incoherent, followed her back into the house. Teresa called the police. When they arrived, one of them asked, “How do you know this woman?”

“I don’t,” Teresa replied. “She just wandered in.”

“Well, you likely saved this woman’s life today,” he said. “You’re clearly someone who helps people.”

Something about the way he looked at her when he said this struck Teresa like lightning. “As weird as it sounds,” she explains, “that experience felt like a sign from the universe.”

She got her thyroid under control and enrolled in a program to become a home healthcare attendant. And though, given the demographic shifts cited earlier, it’s timely that Teresa found work caring for the elderly, the age of her clients and the structure of her work are, in a way, irrelevant. What is valuable is that Teresa realized that she’s intrinsically motivated to help people, and she found a job that allows her to do just that, get paid (albeit too little), and gain a sense of satisfaction.

Teresa is not defined by being a home healthcare attendant. She is defined by being a young woman who has realized that what lights her up is the opportunity to ease others’ suffering—physically and emotionally (not to mention bureaucratically). In ten years, she might be an occupational therapist or a human resources director or a retirement coach (yup, another one of those newfangled jobs that’s popping up). For now, she’s a home healthcare attendant with three lucky clients.

Her third client is Arnold, a man in his early seventies she spends two days a week with. They go grocery shopping, go out to eat, and take walks. Sometimes they just sit in front of the television and talk about life. Their conversations are surprisingly wide-ranging. After watching a special about teen pregnancy, for example, they talked all about the pill and the opportunities it’s given women to be more in control of their fertility. Arnold tells her about his son, who lives far away, and Teresa tells Arnold about her mother, a seamstress, whom she didn’t get to grow up with but now considers a role model.

Some of their conversations are about the hard stuff—losses and regrets—but some are playful and imaginative. “We joke that we’re going to travel to Cuba together, now that it opened up, so he can find a wife and I can find a boyfriend,” Teresa admits, giggling.

Teresa loves the work because she feels effective at it. She can hear and hold the hard stories, and values watching her clients feel lighter as they share them with her. She gets deep satisfaction from the little things—making sure client medication is in order for the week, or seeing the sunlight on their faces when she coaxes them outside. Mostly, it just feels right. Teresa sums it up: “If you’re good to somebody, somebody else is going to be good to you. That’s my belief.”


For twentieth-century Americans, the telltale sign that sons or daughters have transcended the status of their parents—i.e., become “better off”—is when blue collars get traded for white ones. But studies show that Americans have a comparably lower chance of social mobility than do people from other middle- to high-income countries.7 And yet, we have the strongest belief in the magical properties of meritocracy.8

The thing is, we’re not just delusional about how sticky economic class is from generation to generation; we also have a double consciousness regarding this kind of transcendence. We lionize the kid who is the first in his family to graduate from college and sport a suit to work, and yet we romanticize the seemingly simpler times when a man could count on his job, thanks to unions, and leave work behind when he clocked out.

Think of almost every presidential candidate in the last decade who has proudly spoken of his father’s calloused hands and dogged work ethic; the implication is that the candidate is worthy of your vote because he bootstrapped his way up the economic ladder. That he frames his story this way is supposed to be a comfort to the voter, offering reassurance that we live in a country where this can still happen. But what of the father? What did the son escape, exactly? And why is that escape ennobled?

The trusty old collar-color metaphor has some grounding in reality—factory workers preferred darker colors (blue) that better hid the grime of their toil, while office workers, having the luxury of not worrying about such stains, could wear white shirts if they wanted to. But the false dichotomy between intellectual and physical work was always reductive. It fanned the flames of class tension and resulted in a strange and dispiriting state where some people feel looked down on and most people feel misunderstood.

Today, blue-collar—i.e., manual labor—jobs are fewer and farther between, and don’t come with the security they used to; many children of elevator repairmen or transportation inspectors would be thrilled to find a job that resembled their parents’—and lucky too. Over the past three decades, the U.S. economy has added just 1 million manufacturing jobs, as compared to 28 million routine service jobs (sometimes called “pink-collar” jobs) and 23 million knowledge, professional, and creative jobs.9

White-collar work, long considered the promised land for the American striver, is turning out to be a bit of a mirage. Bigger earnings don’t always translate into a better life, as evidenced by the preponderance of miserable lawyers, doctors, sales managers, and investment bankers. Recent studies indicate that the occupations with the highest rates of depression are not correlated with low salaries, but are those that “require frequent or difficult interactions with the public or clients, and have high levels of stress and low levels of physical activity.” Top of the list? Public transit, real estate, social work, manufacturing, personal services, legal services, and publishing—jobs with a wide range of earning potential, and many considered white-collar.10

Jobs classified as blue-collar have been underrated in terms of their cognitive value. Mike Rose, author of The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker, writes: “I grew up a witness to the intelligence of the waitress in motion, the reflective welder, the strategy of the guy on the assembly line. This then is something I know: the thought it takes to do physical work.”

In other words, the jobs we’ve historically described as “skilled or unskilled manual labor” often require strategic and creative thinking. In addition, we’re beginning to acknowledge that all people crave a mix of physical and intellectual work. The popularity of “maker culture”—basically, people who are excited to be making things with their hands again—indicates that we’re starting to rebalance our ideas about the relationship between thinking and doing. Matthew B. Crawford, think-tanker-turned-motorcycle-repairman and author of Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, writes, “Out of the current confusion of ideals and confounding of career hopes, a calm recognition may yet emerge that productive labor is the foundation of all prosperity.”11

Plus, sitting in front of a computer all day is increasingly equated with health dangers on a par with smoking. Researchers recently found that women who reported significant sedentary time were more likely to die of cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease, and cancer—even if they exercised regularly.12

As the tectonic plates of work shift under our feet, there’s a palpable sense of professional insecurity. We can’t expect to land a job and keep it for decades, as our parents and grandparents might have. Professions are morphing constantly, so it’s unwise to craft your whole identity around just one. Facing today’s job market realities, more and more men are bravely evolving beyond traditional ideals of professional masculinity and becoming flight attendants, nurses, and social workers.13 While that kind of crossover can be daunting, it can also be liberating; in a moment when we don’t have as much to lose, we get the opportunity to focus on what really matters: status, or a reliable paycheck?

Most of us want work that demands something of our minds and our bodies. We want to avoid unnecessary bureaucracy and long, unpredictable hours. We want to feel that our gifts—whatever weird and wonderful things those might be—are put to good use. We want to wake up in the morning and feel not just that there’s a place to direct our energy toward, but also that that place dignifies us, even if it doesn’t define us. We want to work alongside other people who see and celebrate our gifts, people who teach us things, people who want to make cool shit with us, people who acknowledge that we’re not just workers, but also caretakers and friends, sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, people who are kind and mostly good.

When I was pregnant, my belly just beginning to swell, I decided to try Zumba. Within just a few minutes of shaking my booty in time with the instructor, Andreina Febres-Cordero, I knew I was in the presence of someone doing what she was meant to do. “If it’s your first time, don’t worry about getting all the moves,” she shouted. “Just keep moving.” She clearly made all students feel welcome. An old, white guy with a beer belly danced to Shakira un-self-consciously in the back. A woman who looked to be bald from chemotherapy softly stepped near the front. Another woman wearing jazz shoes, her long, black hair coming loose from the bun on her head, leapt and slapped the floor, totally offbeat but somehow freed up to express herself, inspired by Andreina’s unconditionally loving presence and patient smile.

I Zumbaed all through my pregnancy, even dancing the day I went into labor. That class became an oasis for me. From time to time Andreina would look over at me and give a little shake of her head to indicate that a particular move was a no-no for me and my growing belly. When the world seemed heavy with profound unknowns, I would waddle into her class and suddenly feel lighter, freer. Sometimes I would get emotional, tearing up over just the relief of moving my body and getting out of my head, hearing the loud thump of music, being in the safe haven that Andreina had built.

Andreina, a Venezuelan in her late thirties, wasn’t always a Zumba instructor. For five years, she’d done the traditional office grind for marketing agencies. Her specialty was advising companies on how to reach the Hispanic market in the U.S. She would recommend what media buys they should make based on her understanding of what television and radio shows were hot—an easy call for someone who keeps her finger on the pulse.

She liked her job, but it was increasingly stressful; she continually got promotions and her workload increased. She really wanted to have a baby and was having a hell of a time getting pregnant and staying pregnant. After multiple miscarriages, she went to her doctor and begged for answers.

“There’s nothing wrong with your body,” he said. “You’re simply too stressed-out.”

She was faced with a decision. As a young immigrant from a traditional Venezuelan family, she’d never seen anyone with a freelance lifestyle; her mother had stayed at home with the kids and her father worked a nine-to-five office job. She’d come to the United States in 1999, determined to make something of herself, to prove to her family back home that she could cut it. The idea of things falling apart after so many years of hard work was devastating to her. On the other hand, she knew she wanted a child, and it didn’t seem like pregnancy was going to happen if she continued apace. She had two degrees—one in business, the other in photography. She was confident in her capacity to connect with people and find interesting opportunities. There had to be a way. A different way.

She quit in May. By June, she was pregnant. By December, she was getting calls from companies asking her to advise them on the Hispanic market in a consulting capacity.

That first leap of faith became not just an isolated act of courage, but a way of life. When her sister-in-law, a professional dancer was pursuing certification to teach Zumba, she invited Andreina along. Though she’d only taken a couple of classes, she figured, why not? She loved dancing. She loved making other people dance; she’d even drag aunties onto the dance floor at weddings. It sounded fun. In 2009, she became a certified Zumba instructor, and now teaches at Flying Studios in Oakland, California, a few times a week.

Being a Zumba instructor became one more way for Andreina to express her gift; her get-out-and-dance spirit burns brightly in her classes, where she creates community out of whatever motley crew joins in. She could have been a doctor or a janitor or a zoologist. She happened to be a photographer and a Zumba instructor and a marketing consultant. But wherever she landed, she would have shown up with a particular talent for creating community by putting people at ease. When she’s in that mode, it’s not only evident to those around her—she feels it, too. It’s alchemical: “When I’m doing what I love, I sweat,” she explains. “It sounds funny to say, but it’s true. Whether I’m taking pictures or dancing or helping people in Peru, I’m sweating and I just feel like, I want to stay here forever.”


So many of the jobs that were once considered bona fide—the careers your parents would brag about to their neighbors and friends—have become impractical. In fact, two of the most popular paths for smart kids (many of whom are really confused about what they want to do)—law school and graduate school, in general—have become canaries in the coal mine.

According to the American Bar Association, in 2014 total enrollment in law school fell to 119,775, down nearly 18.5 percent from its 2010 historic high of 147,525.14 Why? Because those really smart, really confused kids have caught on to the fact that law degrees are both expensive (the average debt is $122,158 for private school graduates and $84,600 for public school graduates) and don’t guarantee meaningful employment. In 2013, 11.2 percent of law school graduates were still unemployed nine months after graduation. That’s compared to 10.9 percent of college graduates overall.15

Law is a field notorious for “leaky pipeline” issues. For example, women don’t make it to leadership positions in significant numbers because the profession is still inhospitable to working parents. And as if that weren’t enough to deter you, your parents’ bragging might no longer be received so well; according to the latest Pew Research Center survey on professional public esteem, lawyers were rated rock-bottom.16

Many people have also soured on going into academia. Once seen as the go-to route for intellectual types, the market is simply too oversaturated, the pay too low, and the path to advancement simultaneously rigid and unpredictable. According to Humanities Indicators, for example, job ads for the majority of the humanities peaked in the 2007–2008 academic year. As of the most recent reports from each society, the number of positions advertised was at least 30 percent lower in just about every discipline.17

Patrick Iber, a visiting lecturer in history at the University of California, Berkeley, put a very human face on this statistical drop in a devastating essay he wrote for Inside Higher Ed. Even with a PhD from the University of Chicago and a book deal from Harvard University Press, he struggled to find a secure job as a professor. He writes: “Of all the machines that humanity has created, few seem more precisely calibrated to the destruction of hope than the academic job market. . . . Universities trade on our hopes, and on the fact that we have spent many years developing skills so specialized that few really want them, to offer increasingly insecure careers to young scholars.”18

This isn’t to suggest that specialization is foolhardy, but specialized knowledge must now be coupled with the capacity to translate that knowledge in a wide variety of settings and in the service of a diversity of audiences. My big brother, Chris, is a perfect example: he’s an experimental poet, deeply immersed in a relatively small subculture of people who write and read experimental poems. As you might imagine, it doesn’t pay the bills. So what does my huge-hearted, big-brained brother do? He starts a company that teaches autistic children how to express themselves through poetry. His wife, also a poet and a graphic designer, designs one-of-a-kind chapbooks of the children’s poetry. As a result, parents discover that their kids, often thought of as lacking in empathy and locked in their own minds, are actually deeply emotional and creative. From time to time Chris serves as a visiting professor at universities, including his own alma mater of Carleton College, but he’s not waiting around for a tenure track job to fall into his lap; he’s making his own money and meaning in the world.


On Sale
Oct 4, 2016
Page Count
320 pages
Seal Press

Courtney E. Martin

About the Author

Courtney E. Martin is a writer living with her family in a co-housing community in Oakland. She has a popular Substack newsletter, called Examined Family, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges through out the country. She is also the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network, FRESH Speakers Bureau, and the Bay Area chapter of Integrated Schools. Her happy place is asking people questions. Learning in Public is her fourth book.

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