Even in Tough Times, You Can Find New Ways to Be Better Off

Q&A with author Courtney Martin about “The New Better Off”

Posted Nov 17, 2016

Ryan Lash Photography, used with permission
Source: Ryan Lash Photography, used with permission

In the first paragraph of her new book, The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, author, entrepreneur, and popular TED speaker Courtney E. Martin offers this sobering statistic: “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 complaining, though. She thinks our current challenges offer us opportunities to rethink the meanings of work, friendship, family, home, community, and our stuff, and to emerge all the better for it. I read The New Better Off and loved it, so I asked the author if she would share some of her observations with “Living Single” readers. I am so grateful that she agreed.

Bella: Many of the readers of this blog are single. They are their own sole source of economic support, so there are some challenges to that. But they also get to be the designers of their own lives. Are there themes from your book that may be especially relevant to them?

Courtney Martin: I think there are a lot of parallels between freelancing and single life. In both cases, the reward is lots of flexibility, but the risk is isolation and insecurity. As such, I think the exploration of how to create community—whether in a professional context or a living situation (like you write so well about in How We Live Now)—is a really wise one for single people. 

I am so grateful to the single people in my life, who, among other things, consistently help me create rich experiences for my kids. Louise, my 78-year-old single neighbor, is the garden guru, and one of my personal heroes, being an anti-racist activist. I’ll be taking her to the dentist on Monday. It might sound mundane, and yet it’s a kind of love.

Bella: When I was researching How We Live Now, I learned about all sorts of innovative lifespaces, such as cohousing communities (including the very one – and the very unit – where you now live!). There seems to be some real enthusiasm for ways of living that foster meaningful interpersonal connections, yet far more people still live in those detached single-family homes in the suburbs. Do you think that is going to change, or will creative lifespaces such as cohousing communities always be off to the side?

Courtney Martin: That was the most amazing surprise while I was reading your book. I was on a plane and suddenly there is my house, my neighbor, my community! I practically yelled out to no one in particular. 

Cohousing is when a group of people all live in their own separate units, but also share some common space—in our case, an industrial sized kitchen and eating area, as well as a garden, tool shed, bike shed etc. We share common meals twice a week, and do a workday on the land one Saturday morning a month. 

It’s very sad that the cohousing movement, which hit the U.S. about 25 years ago, hasn’t spread farther faster. There are a lot of reasons for that. It’s financially challenging to get the right loans to create communities like these, not to mention psychically challenging to work with groups on anything, ever, much less something as complex as building homes and social rituals around them. 

But there’s hope! There are currently 160 cohousing communities in the U.S., but so many more in development. Aging boomers are particularly interested in living this way, recognizing that aging in cohousing can be a really life-giving experience, and Millennials are accustomed to sharing and increasingly rejecting the “white picket fence” romance for a more pragmatic way to think about living in community. If we can get the financial structures to catch up, this will prove far easier. In the meantime, a lot of people are doing retrofit cohousing, which means they’re not buying and building anew, but tearing down fences and creating these communities right where they already are.   

Bella: Many of the inspiring groups and communities you describe in The New Better Off have friendship at their core. At a time when marriage and nuclear family ties are celebrated so much more than any other kinds of relationships, how do you think we can validate and value and recognize the other important people in our lives such as friends, colleagues, mentors, and neighbors?

Courtney Martin: I love this question! I’ve been thinking so much about friendship. I think our relationship to friends has really changed in the last few decades. We’re starting to really understand the profound value of investing in friendships and we’re no longer dividing up our lives so cleanly—work/life etc. There is a real art to friendship—showing up to mourn and celebrate in ways that your friend really needs you to (not just how you would want to be showed up for), creating rituals so that your friendship doesn’t fall through the cracks in our overscheduled lives, sending that little text to check in rather than assuming that someone’s nuclear family is all they need.  

Bella: The implications of The New Better Off seem clearest for young adults, who may be facing a more challenging set of circumstances than their parents did. But it seems to me that the questions you are encouraging readers to ponder are so fundamental that they are relevant to people of all ages. Any thoughts on whether the take-aways from your book may be different for adults of different ages?

Courtney Martin: Thanks for that. I do think the book is relevant to all ages and generations. I’ve had a lot of young people, interestingly, tell me that they’re buying it for their worried parents to try to explain some of their seemingly unorthodox choices. But I also think there are a lot of older people who are facing a moment of reinvention in their own lives and that some of this material really speaks to what they are trying to create, too.

Bella: I know authors sometimes resist playing favorites, but can you share a favorite story or tell us about a person or group or community mentioned in your book that you found particularly inspiring?

Courtney Martin: I love learning, so I’d say I learned the most from my reporting on the future of labor rights and the social safety net. I’m so moved by the movers and shakers, most of them women, trying to reinvent how we take care of people in this country at the broadest scale. Natalie Foster is spearheading a movement for a Universal Basic Income. Carmen Rojas is combining the entrepreneurial spirit of Silicon Valley with the dignity and drive of a rich history of labor organizing. Michelle Miller is helping workers figure out new ways of organizing online and holding their employers responsible. It’s so hopeful in a time that is otherwise rather grim. 

Bella: I can see that your book is already getting a much-deserved warm reception, both from the impressive people who have endorsed it and from some early reviews. I’m wondering if you have also encountered any resistance to any of your ideas?

Courtney Martin: I’ve tried to be very clear in both the TED talk and book that I believe poor and working class people are often better at creating community than those of us with some modicum of economic privilege. In other words, wealth sometimes makes us dumb about reaching out. I had one radio interviewer misinterpret that and suggest that I was arguing that the wealth gap and the failing social safety net were unimportant—that poor people should just band together and keep making a way out of no way. In fact, I’m deeply invested in structural and systemic reform and I deeply admire the person-to-person efforts to close the gaps that exist because of the unfinished work in this arena. 

Bella: Are you a different person now, as a result of researching and writing this book?

Courtney Martin: Without a doubt. But even more than being a different person, I think I see myself differently. I realized that my instincts for creating community (something I inherited from my incredible mom) is actually one of my most important gifts. It’s not rewarded in any formal sense—you don’t get awards for creating a new mom’s group and you certainly don’t get financial compensation—so sometimes you can overlook the importance. I don’t overlook those gifts in myself anymore. And I hope others don’t, either. 

Speaking of which, thank you for your gifts Bella. My life has been so enriched by your work and way of seeing the world. [From Bella: Thanks so much, Courtney!]

book cover provided by author, used with permission
Source: book cover provided by author, used with permission

About the Author: In her new book, The New Better Off, Courtney E. Martin explores how people are redefining the American dream with an eye toward fulfillment. Martin is a columnist for On Being, and the cofounder of the Solutions Journalism Network, Valenti Martin Media, and FRESH Speakers, as well as a strategist for the TED Prize and an editor emeritus at Feministing.com. In her previous book Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, she profiled eight young people doing social justice work, a fascinating look at the generation of world-changers who are now stepping up to the plate.