In every generation, Americans have looked at their children—young, ambitious, equipped with skills that outstripped their own—and felt satisfied that their progeny’s standard of living would transcend their own. Until now. Polls show that the majority of U.S. parents no longer believe that their children will be “better off” than they were.
I’m one of those kids, part of the generation born after 1980 (in my case, on New Year’s Eve 1979) who came of age in the millennium and now are staring down our professional prime at a time of great economic upheaval. But as news about layoffs and unemployment hogs the headlines and many workers struggle to cobble together enough dollars from freelance and project jobs, my women friends and I are not huddling at the base of the traditional career ladder, bemoaning the broken rungs. Instead, we are carving out self-directed lives and in the process redefining what it means to be better off than our parents.
Some of us were forced by the economy into rethinking what a successful lifestyle might look like. But some of us rethought voluntarily. Men are seeking new paths, too, but the evidence suggests that women’s efforts are more pronounced. According to McKinsey & Co. research, for example, a growing number of twenty-something women in corporate careers have dropped out to look for alternatives. We want lives that are more focused on community, more reflective of our idiosyncratic styles and talents. Many of us who grew up in fancy houses now doubt that the big mortgages were worth the 14-hour workdays that our parents had to put in. Others who were raised in modest circumstances noticed that the pursuit of economic betterment could easily spawn bitterness and disconnection in the family.
The lifestyle we envision is defined not by how many billable hours we rack up but by our favorite f’s: fulfillment, family, friends, flexibility and financial self-sufficiency. My friend Molly May, 33, spent her twenties wandering the world after getting a degree in English. She worked on a farm in New Zealand, taught at an alternative school in New Mexico and worked for the editor-in-chief of a publishing house in New York. Now she and her husband, Christopher, live in Montana, in a yurt they built together. He is a freelance custom-furniture designer and builder. She teaches memoir writing, having attracted an eclectic student following by generating good word of mouth and posting her own class descriptions on local bulletin boards.
They work really hard one month, saving up and forgoing meals out, in order to take periods of time off. Most recently they traveled around Spain, timing their drinking to coincide with the free tapas at happy hour to help subsidize their adventure.
Jennifer Gandin Le, 34, and her husband and business partner, Chris Gandin Le, own a social-venture firm in Austin, Texas, that aims to prevent suicide by using social media. Jennifer also does promotion for a musician on a contract basis and works on writing projects. The two share the care of their doe-eyed toddler and are passionate about getting together with their large group of friends for weekly karaoke sessions.
In my case, I’ve made a decent living for the past 12 years from freelance journalism, book authoring, public speaking, teaching and consulting. Each week brings a new alchemy of my favorite activities, some paid, some not: mentoring a young blogger or speaking at a university, meeting about a journalism start-up or the social media strategy for a women’s organization, squeezing in some writing time on an airplane or at the New York Public Library. There is no line between work and life: Brunch on Saturday with girlfriends might lead to a screenplay collaboration; my clients are often people I consider friends; museum exhibits, movies, even parties may spark a paid writing project.
I sometimes collaborate on projects with my husband, who’s an architect. This month, for example, we’re co-curating an exhibit on design (his field) and story-telling (mine), devising a contest for an international nonprofit think tank and planning a retreat for young activists. In a previous generation, our work identities (architect, journalist) might have been immutable. In this one, we both pursue a colorful combination of projects. This may make our careers inscrutable to aunts and uncles who are used to precise job titles, but our patchwork of gigs makes us less insecure in a downturn economy. We can use our skills and interests to tap into a wide variety of job opportunities.
My friends and I are not trust fund kids; our parents do not provide a financial cushion. Nor are we flaky dreamers, destined to incur big debt. Each of us is practical and determined to build a life that’s in tune with our values. To us, this is the real definition of being better off than our parents.
Luckily for us, we enjoy freelancing and are good at it—but many Americans who’d prefer one steady job may soon have to adapt to the gig approach. According to Public Sector Digest, contingent workers, defined as everyone from temps to accidental entrepreneurs laid off from full-time employment, will grow to 40 to 45 percent of the workforce by 2020 and will become a majority by 2030. What makes this trend encouraging for women of all generations is that it calls for the feminine strengths that were once thought to handicap our advancement in the business world: empathy, communication skills and a natural tendency to build and nurture connections. In so many ways, women are better equipped than men to achieve “the new better-off.” We’ve had to develop the mental fortitude to chart our own paths in corporate and political environments that are inhospitable to our needs. We know how to ask friends and mentors for advice when we need it; we’ve learned when and how to admit we don’t know something.
Young women today aren’t chasing work-life balance; we know that’s another one of those outdated delusions, like security. Instead, we want what career expert Cali Yost describes as “work+life fit.” In this model, the work is seasonal, shape shifting, less about being a superhero every moment of the day and more about determining your best life from month to month.
For example, my husband and I undertook a grueling work schedule in June so that we could take an unpaid August residency at an institute in Santa Fe and spend time with my parents, who live there. In other words, we forgo short-term balance for the long-term goal of living our version of better-off. “The new better-off” is often lived in seasons, not fiscal years. A few months of double shifts afford a summer of artistry; a less enjoyable, lucrative gig subsidizes the dream project that pays little or nothing.
Of course, there are risks to this hopscotch lifestyle—not just short term (can I pay my rent this month?) but longer (will my husband and I have enough money for our kids’ college education? for our retirement?). Other people might choose to accept the restrictions of a corporate job in exchange for the certainty of regular direct deposits. But what if they don’t have that option? If the past few years of layoffs and financial-institution breakdowns have taught us anything, it’s that job security is a pipe dream. My security comes from confidence in my ability to find paying gigs when I need them. We buy our own health insurance and have learned how to invest our IRA savings.
I believe there is a huge opportunity for women in this crisis, a chance to reassess what the fulfilling life actually looks like and to—in the words of anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson—“compose lives” that reflect our deepest-held values. Millennials are a resourceful generation, and we make up 25 percent of the population. I’m betting that many more women, regardless of their age, will be inspired by our quest for a “new better-off” and that our favorite f’s—fulfillment, family, friends, flexibility and financial self-sufficiency—will become the new and improved American dream.
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