Very early on in journalist Courtney E. Martin’s provocative new book The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, she writes of the so-called American Dream that many of us have been striving for, “I didn’t want to get a good job, a house with a white picket fence, have 2.5 kids, and then just . . . go . . . to . . . sleep.” In fact, Martin came to this conclusion after living a fabulous, messy life in Brooklyn in her 20s and was on the cusp of what she calls “becoming a real adult”—30.

“It just brought up all these questions for me about success and family and how I wanted to spend the money that I’d made, and how much money did I need to make,” says the 36-year-old author, who now lives in Oakland with her husband and young family. “I think these are pretty universal and anxiety-producing questions that young Americans are asking themselves.” To make matters more complex, Martin’s impending plunge into adulthood corresponded with the recession of 2008. The economy had subsequently been disrobed, thanks to the Wall Street crash, so Martin was able to gain more clarity than she says she would have had in richer times. Her own feelings, coupled 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, and Martin had a book.

Martin realized, for instance, that the trends that millennials weren’t buying homes and that more and more young Americans were becoming freelancers instead of subscribing to the 9-to-5 weren’t separate circumstances, but part of the changing ideology of what constitutes success. “It’s time to update the American dream,” she says. “Having enough money; having enough community that you can count on when you’re vulnerable, sick, having a hard time emotionally; doing work that you find meaningful; that actually is a very different picture than the kind of Trump version of the American Dream, and that’s the one that I’m arguing we should be investing our time and energy in.” So how does one do that? Ahead, my findings.

the new better off

Photo: Courtesy of Seal Press
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Admit You Can’t Have It All “I think it’s very American of us to want to think we can have it all, all at once, and that we shouldn’t have to miss out on anything, and it’s totally delusional,” she says. In the book, Martin references advertising executive Beth Foley Barnes, who loses her job at McCann Erickson in New York, while on maternity leave and relocates to Greenwood, Mississippi. Foley Barnes, a big-city overachiever, had done everything she was supposed to career-wise, but was forced to move when life dealt her the wrong set of cards. “I had done everything ‘right,’ you know, by the book, up until that point,” she says. “I went to the ‘right’ school. I got the ‘right’ job. I worked at the ‘right’ company. And nothing was working for me.” Though Foley Barnes is somewhat happy in the South, she still admits she has pangs of sadness for her former life: “I mourn the loss of my career as defined by my eighteen-year-old self.” And that mourning, Martin says, is integral to defining the new version of “better off.” “There’s always going to be tradeoffs, but I think it’s trying to be honest about them and at peace with them, which changes your perspective,” she says.

More Is Not More In 2010, psychologist Daniel Kahneman and economist Angus Deaton conducted a study with more than 450,000 U.S. residents, and looked at the correlation between income and daily happiness. The number they found to be the great contentment equalizer? Specifically, $75,000. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 34.4 percent of Americans already make that, so Martin argues: Why then are we so obsessed with how much more money we could be making when simply put, enough is enough? “We all know all these wealthy people who are super unhappy, right? But it’s funny that we aren’t able to internalize that more when we see people bear witness to it all the time,” she says. “Maybe it isn’t $75,000 for you, but at least it introduces this idea of actually having this line of enough.” Meaning that you don’t necessarily need to make more to have a happier or better life.

The Freelance Era Is Coming Martin reports that by 2020, freelancers will make up more than 40 percent of the workforce, and while that might keep your parents or grandparents awake at night, freelancing is not the sleep till 2:00 p.m., pizza-box wielding lifestyle it was once considered to be. “Yes, freelancing is insecure,” she says, “But, is it that much more insecure than your average full-time job these days? Not particularly.” A freelance lifestyle, Martin says, allows individuals to be the creator of their own career, leaving behind the sometimes toxic culture of corporate environments and political bureaucracy. Not to mention, according to the 2014 national Freelancing in America survey, nearly 8 in 10 independent workers said they earned as much on their own as they did when they were working full time, and 4 in 10 said they earned more. It might not be a viable option for all, Martin explains, but it certainly is becoming more so.

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Community Is Making a Comeback Though the symbol of the white picket fence, with its manicured lawn, is indicative of the old American Dream, it also signals self-containment and self-possession, Martin says. “I had all these friends who I’d never seen their apartments when I was in New York; it was so weird that we operated this way,” she laughs. “There’s this sort of gravitational pull back to neighborhoods, and people are really interested in a spectrum of community building.” Martin cites the popularity of Nextdoor, the social networking app for neighbors, as evidence, along with her own experience living in a cohousing community in Oakland. She says, “I really think people are looking to reweave the fabric of local community, whether that is through a potluck dinner once a month or whatever. I certainly have found those relationships to be some of my most enriching as I’ve gotten older.”