When you think of being “better off” what is it that springs to mind? Do you think of homeownership, that white picket fence, and all the other trappings that come with the American Dream? The New Better Off by Courtney E. Martin is all about how people are changing their mindset away from generations past towards one that values community more while devaluing ownership and the rugged individualism that stands tall in the minds of many1. Specifically, Martin wanted to explore how people are changing the meaning behind work success and show how they’re building lives worth living that don’t need to include the corner office2.
The essential message of the book is that community is everything. This idea was echoed in Four Thousand Weeks as they showed that doing something with others in sync improves our mood3. It even shows that when many people in a country take a vacation at the same time everyone has a better vacation because others are around to enjoy activities with. This flies in the face of the individualist mindset which tells us that we should always have full control of our time without any outside claims on it, that is when we’re successful.
I’m going to cover this book in 2 sections. First, we’ll look at some of the broken structures that exist in society today. Second, we’ll have some ideas about solutions to those structures that would benefit all of society.
Our Structures Are Broken
I start with the idea that many structures in society are broken because that is one key item that the author wants to impress upon us4. Since the 1980’s we’ve embraced capitalism so much so that as workers have become more productive more and more of the value they produce has been heading up towards CEO’s and owners. This leaves workers in a state of always running harder to try and have any of the comforts that their parents had.
Part of this starts with what we’ve been taught at school about how to find a career. We sat around doing career surveys’s trying to find something we could be good at so that we could then spend decades sticking to that career5. Unfortunately for most of us, that means we find a poor match fit with our work and end up changing careers which put us further behind those that waited just a bit longer to find a good fit.
We explored the idea of match fit deeper in Range.
On top of ending up with a poor fit in your career is the fact that many jobs are inhospitable to parents6. Many are built around the assumption that whoever is working that job has no responsibilities outside of working7. They don’t have to take care of kids or older relatives, they can show up to work and tailor their entire life around the needs of the company.
I’ve seen this first hand as I’ve looked at many jobs in the programming field that question me when I say that I need to be done work by 3 pm every day to take care of kids because my wife works. I have had raised eyebrows when I tell them that being a good father is far more important to me than money.
I honestly wonder how I’d fulfill a “proper” 40-hour workweek without giving up much of my parenting responsibilities and all my community involvement.
Unfortunately, men who want to be involved parents and expect work to accommodate their parenting are often faced with derision, demotion, and job loss8 because they’re not willing to sacrifice everything for work.
So what can we do about this? Martin has some examples of people that are making up their own systems. She cites mutual aid networks9 where you may share the bounty of your garden with others in the group that also share with you. Maybe the group brings meals to each other when it’s a tough month, or trades childcare. These groups create more stability by pooling resources.
She also talks about multigenerational housing10 where parents, grandparents, and cousins can share the work that it takes to run a family.
While both of these structures can work, it seems that the governments of the world expect people to focus on their productivity so that GDP can increase but are unwilling to support people. This is people pooling their resources, which they have less of than previous generations, and making up for shortfalls in the supports that society provides.
Martin also talks about financial literacy almost always focusing on what you as an individual can do to increase your piece of the pie11. These frameworks ignore the fact that rich people have been able to lobby the government for tax laws that can allow them to keep a higher percentage of their income due to write-offs, like mortgage breaks. Maybe we should be offering breaks for renters instead of homeowners?
Finally, she talks about the precarious edge that many people live on, where a minor attention slip causes a fender bender. But if you don’t have $500 in the bank because it costs more to rent than to own, you wonder how you make it to your job and have food. What is a minor issue for some pushes others into job loss, housing loss, and then loss of children because they’re no longer able to provide12. This is where universal basic income could step in and allow many people to bridge these gaps.
Before you say that universal basic income is terrible, look at The War on Normal People and Basic Income for Canadians. Both show that most people keep working, save more, eat better, have better health outcomes, and thus society as a whole is far better off with regular monthly income for those over 18 regardless of their job status.
Should You Read The New Better Off by Courtney E Martin?
If you’ve been looking for alternatives to the standard American Dream in your life, this book is going to give you a bunch of alternatives. Unfortunately, it doesn’t go too deeply into fixing the structural issues with a society that force people to work way too much and neglect relationships just so that they don’t live on the street.
I enjoyed the read, but do want to find something with more depth in ways to deal with those structural issues. Of course, to really deal with them we’ll need to lobby the government to make sweeping changes to society.