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

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.

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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