Women as Masters of the New "Better-Off"

Females have been called the second sex, but in the 21st century, they just might become the first. Here, the third in our three-part series on the sources of women's new power—from the vagina to the voting booth. Courtney E. Martin discusses the quest for the new and improved American Dream.

by Courtney E. Martin
new American Dream
Photograph: Phil Toledano

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.

Share Your Thoughts!


T Jord09.13.2012

I applaud the sentiment, but we should note that women who work in a billable hour structure don't "define their lives" by it either. Nor do many women who have struggled to get the degrees, put in the hours, break corporate glass ceilings, make medical breakthroughs, or change precedent in the courtrooms. It is incredibly important for women to continue to make strides in more traditional professional contexts; we should not judge them just because they are on a path that precludes living in a yurt. Have your friends found work at corporations where their bosses care that their needs are not met? And let them take off for a month? Australia seems to have an interesting work culture, where employers actually do credit the impulse for travel. Maybe a paradigm deserving of further study?

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