Book Review: “The New Better Off” by Courtney E. Martin

The New Better Off or Reinventing the American Dream by Courtney E. Martin

As the subtitle suggests, Martin wants to redefine “success” and everything associated with that concept in US culture. She is talking about moving the goalposts as defined by mainstream society and popular culture. You know: a job, a marriage, 2.5 kids, a house, a car, 5 TVs, etc.

In some sense, she advocates opting out, and redefining achievement by lowering (or tossing away) the bar. Owning a home? Who needs it. A long term career? Overrated. And so on.

On the other hand, in many ways, Martin raises the bar insanely high. Seeking and living in communities. “Gathering” together. Sharing time and stuff. Follow your passion and conscience. And so on.

This is hard, but it is a “beautiful struggle” she says, “to create a life that aligns with their beliefs”.

Throughout her book, Martin runs through a pretty comprehensive collection of the usual suspects: coworking, freelancing, the end of ownership, including home ownership, simplifying, rejiggering parenting, and reinvention of spaces and rituals. She ties them all together with quite a bit of biographical and autobiographical material. The biographies tended to be more than I really needed to know, but they make the crucial point: Martin and her informants are walking the walk.

In the pages I’ve tried to lay out a perhaps idiosyncratic but at least rich breadth of the areas of life you could, if you chose, examine for neglected opportunity.” (p. 257)

So let’s pay attention to what she has to say.

Work

Naturally, Martin has much to say about work, and “work/life balance”. She fully embraces the spirit of freelancing and coworking. The gig economy makes life uncertain and often precarious for workers, but it is also an opportunity for people to work authentically, in ways and for purposes that fulfill our lives. “Taking our careers into our own hands” (p. 46) isn’t easy, but it is better.

In this environment, coworking spaces have a vital role. As I have written, coworking spaces is where “the new way of work” happens. And, if you are truly concerned about the “new way of work”, then you have to be concerned about workers. The Freelancer’s Union, the cooperative movement and other efforts may not be “Norma Rae for a New Century” (p. 49), but they certainly are pushing for “a twenty-first century social contract”. (p. 64)

And, by the way, while we are following our own freelance star, many of us, men as well as women, will desire to make room and time to raise children and care for others. This, too, is better.

“Enough”

It is popularly said that Eskimos have a hundred words for “snow”, indicating both a sophisticated understanding and the cultural significance of arctic conditions. Isn’t it is telling, then, that Americans have ten thousand words for “money”. Money surely lies at the very core of our culture, and, for many people is intimately connected with personal identity.

At the core of Martin’s world view is the notion of redefining the concept of “enough”. Enough money, enough stuff. This inevitably means redefining much of popular culture, and conventional ideas about personal identity and status.

Here Martin is preaching to the choir as far as I’m concerned.

It’s really very simple: you can chase “more” forever and never be happy, or you can chase “happy” and try to make it work financially.

In addition, accumulating “stuff” generally accumulates a need for money to support all that stuff. Going into deep debt to buy a house, buying a car, and so on, enslaves you to monthly payments, and ties you to your current life. Worse, the more “valuable” stuff you have, the more danger that you may lose track of what you really value.

While some may turn to radical, monkish simplicity and nomadism, everyone can benefit from a good dose of “Amish” mindfulness. Of our possessions, what do we really need, and what do we really cherish? Everything else is fluff, and may be discarded (or better yet, given away or swapped to help others).

Attention

One of the interesting points in this book is how Martin draws in our current concerns about distraction and digital life, connecting it to both “simplicity” and “community”, and also as an antidote to “tunneling” (a narrowing of focus).

If it is important to think carefully about money and stuff, then it is surely more important to use your time wisely. Being mentally captive to your devices is just as much slavery as debt or drudgery.

What should we pay attention to? Other people. This is both the opposite of and the antidote to tunneling.

All roads, or tunnels as it were, lead to community.” (p.127)

Martin tells about her own experiences with a “cohousing” project in Oakland, which is a village like housing complex, with expectations of community participation. Living with, talking to, and caring about your neighbors is good for you and for the world.

Martin’s description of cohousing is both attractive and honest. It’s scary and hard work to put yourself forward to strangers, and to take a chance on neighbors. But Martin describes the kind of rewards that ensue, and makes a clear case just why you would want to take the risk and effort.

I’m too shy myself to easily face the demands of “radical hospitality”, however attractive. But frankly, I think that “living in a neighborhood” is pretty much the definition of “a good life”.

“Tribe” and “Ritual” (and ”Trust”)

Martin talks a bit about “tribes”, using the same word as Sebastian Junger uses , but with considerably different meaning. Junger’s “Tribe” has a strong component of defense, with a definite us-versus-them psychology. In contrast, Martin’s notion is definitely about “we”, but not so much about “them” except by implication.

Martin’s “tribe” seems to be something like a personal digital social network, though connected more deeply than just by “likes” and FoaF. In here approach, these self-sorted groups are a “respite from our isolation” (as Klaas memorably describes coworking communities [2]), people who are willing to talk about deep questions, help each other, and enact rituals. A “safe space to talk about emotions” (p. 246), and a group who knows you.

Martin also talks about “ritual”, which she defines pretty loosely. Specifically, she talks a lot about the “reinvention of ritual”. Traditional rituals serve a variety of purposes, uniting families and communities, renewing ancient connections and values, and recognizing personal transitions. But for many people, traditional rituals have lost appeal, perhaps because they do not speak to us today, or have become hollow, or, in many cases, represent hostile cultural claims we want to reject.

But people still crave the community and the psychological benefit of ritual and rites of passage. What’s a secular humanist to do? Obviously; invent your own rituals.

My own training in Anthropology has always made me both alert to and agnostic about ritual, and Martin generally gets it: ritual isn’t about the specific details, it’s about enacting a shared, social narrative. The important thing is to do it together, whatever script you follow.

Inventors of nouveau rituals seek to capture the psychology of traditional ritual without committing to any particular ideological baggage. The result is some kind of regular or liminal in-person gathering, partly scripted.

A good example in the book is a fortieth birthday party, styled after a wedding. To mark an important occasion, there is a big party with family and friends, a public ceremony, and gifts. All the trappings of a wedding, but celebrating a different life event.

Martin gives several different examples of this kind of “ritual” or “rite of passage”. The interesting thing is the examples are essentially a face-to-face gathering of a digital social network (AKA, the frequently mentioned, “my tribe”). This kind of gathering certainly addresses the isolation of digital connectivity, and probably tempers the network, boiling away the uncommitted retweeters.

Tribal ritual or not, this is actually an interesting idea. (It is also the basic idea of coworking.)

 

“Community, community, community”

All roads, or tunnels as it were, lead to community.” (p.127)

The theme of “authentic community” runs throughout the book. Living with other people is good for you and everyone, makes people happy, and is a way to make the world better. “Radical hospitality”, “tribe”, and “ritual” give ordinary people recognition and ordinary lives significance. Dealing with other people, in person, is an antidote to isolation and distraction.

Here Martin gives an impassioned complaint about the “instrumental” psychology inherent in many contemporary social settings and embodied in digital profiles. For some, “networking” is motivated by the desire to have more “contacts”, that “social capital” is accumulated to further your career, and that “sharing” is about business collaborations. In this world, you construct your “profile” to represent yourself, which stands primarily as a business tender. You are the bullets you have on your profile.

Martin finds these ideas is antithetical to what she considers “authentic” community, which “takes you as you are”. (p. 185) A human being is not a piece of machinery or software, described by its functions. A human being is complex, imperfect, and variable, with skill and interests that are not instrumental. In a true community, everyone is who they are, and take each other as they are. At the same time, we are called upon (and motivated) to grow and change, and discover that we can do more and be more.

You are not asked to perform your value, or submit it via some elaborate calculation of worthiness, or wear a name tag signaling it in big bold letters. Instead you are asked to show up, and you are asked to behave as if everyone else is worthy too.” (p. 185)

In this critique, I see that Martin strikes home against some contemporary approaches to freelancing and coworking, which are based in strongly “instrument” digital communities. I’m thinking here of coworking chains that overlay a digital community on the physical space, augmenting the face-to-face community with digital profiles and matchmaking.

For example, WeWork has been described as a “digital social network with office space”. WeWork’s community maintain detailed profiles of current workers, providing introductions and matchmaking—the company is selling “networking” as much as desks [3].

Another chain, Seats2meet offers “free” coworking, in exchange for providing a detailed profile [6]. Seats2meet offers a form of “radical hospitality”, with free space and free food, and non-hierarchical camaraderie. However, when a worker checks in to the “free” desk, they must post their profile to the public dashboard, and agree to collaborate with others as advertised by their profile.

These and other companies have theories about “the new economy” and social capital [3, 6]. To their credit, they recognize the importance of “community”, and eschew rigid status symbols.  But these are extremely instrumental mechanisms, “matchmaking”, and “skill development” (i.e., enhancing your profile with new bullets). The radical hospitality seems to extend only so far as the work day, and surely does not extend to non-workers or even non-members.

Thinking about Martin’s comments, we can certainly suggest that these approaches to “community” are truly misguided, on at least two fronts.

First, the overlaid digital network may prove to be a distraction and/or attention sucking “tunnel”. Watching the dashboard and digital chats is not really conducive to noticing the people in the room. Keeping score of contacts and the size of your digital network is not good for you or the people in your network.

Second, the emphasis of instrumental, statusizing, “social capital” may or may not be key to “the new economy”, but it isn’t really the basis for authentic human community. Perhaps workers are so starved for company that even a weak, instrumental community is satisfying. But surely we can do better, as many coworking spaces (e.g., Kane, Tony B, Hillman). This issue is at the heart of the debate about “commodity coworking”.

The New Sharecropping?

As an old grey-headed pseudo-Marxist, I’m not happy to embrace the “end of ownership”. In a capitalist or socialist world (or any variant thereof), ownership is power. Renters and gig workers are basically serfs or sharecroppers, and generally at the mercy of the owning class.

One very important and radical things about the “old” American Dream of home ownership and stable careers is that it spread property ownership widely. For many families, their home is their main financial “wealth”, and, consequently, their ticket to political power.

For this reason, I am very leery of the “end of ownership”. Owning nothing means that you have little economic capital. Renting from (monopolistic) owners is, essentially, dependency or slavery. This formula holds for houses, cars, and everything else.

I also note that the both home building and automobiles are major, major industries which represent a huge sector of the economy. Millions of workers have been pulled out of poverty building and servicing the cars and houses of other workers like themselves. Abandoning ownership and downsizing these industries will shrink the economic pie for everyone, with dire consequences for workers. For that matter, concentrating ownership of vehicle and housing stock and so on will likely have disastrous effects due to monopoly power and disconnection between the interests of the owners and the broader economy.


A Surprisingly Good Book

I went into the book basically convinced of many of the points Martin makes. I’ve been blogging about “community, community, community” for several years, as well as the poor design of digital life, the sharing economy and the new way of work. So I wasn’t surprised by these topics, nor did I need to be convinced,

What did surprise and impress me is how well she ties together these many things that have been bothering me. It is obvious that mobile screens and digital life suck our attention away from face-to-face conversation, and “community” is a respite from our isolation.” [2]. But Martin makes a case for how sharing, caring, and living in a community is not only what we want, it actively counteracts and heals these harms.

I didn’t agree with everything I read in this book, nor am I rushing to embrace every idea. But, of course, that’s not her point. This isn’t a program to follow, it is more that she is giving us permission to think again, and live better.

This is an interesting book, definitely worth a look.


  1. Cat Johnson, A New American Dream Based on Sharing and Community. Sharable.January 3 2017, http://www.shareable.net/blog/a-new-american-dream-based-on-sharing-and-community
  2. Zachary R Klaas, Coworking & Connectivity in Berlin. University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign Department of Urban and Regional Planning, NEURUS Research Exchange, 2014. https://www.academia.edu/11486279/Coworking_Connectivity
  3. Liquid Talent, Dude, Where’s My Drone: The future of work and what you can do to prepare for it. 2015. https://www.dropbox.com/s/405kr9keucv97gw/LiquidTalentFoWEbook.pdf?dl=0
  4. Courtney Martin, The new American Dream, in TED. 2016. https://youtu.be/jPf0LjZAS14
  5. Courtney E., Martin, The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, Berkeley, Seal Press, 2016.
  6. Sebastian Olma, The Serendipity Machine: A Disruptive Business Model for Society 3.0, 2012.
  7. The Story of Stuff Project Coworking, Cooperating, and Coming Together: The “New Better Off” Life Looks Pretty Darn Good. Sharable.November 14 2016, http://www.shareable.net/blog/coworking-cooperating-and-coming-together-the-%E2%80%9Cnew-better-off%E2%80%9D-life-looks-pretty-darn-good

 

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