Millennials have been subjected to a barrage of news reports painting their generation as, well, a bunch of losers. They marry later, are saddled with student debt and are living with their parents instead of buying their own homes. While some of the coverage about these changes is sympathetic — focusing on the economic trends that have forced millennials to live with less than their forebears — a huge amount of the coverage depicts their generation as spoiled brats whose problems stem from selfishness rather than their environment.
Author Courtney Martin, however, wants to blow up the entire discourse around millennials and how they live. In her book "The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream," Martin pushes back against both narratives about millennials.
In her view, millennials are neither pitiful victims of a changing economy nor selfish brats who are too lazy to move out of their parents' home. Instead, she argues, millennials should be commended for their creative response to economic pressures and their redefining of the American Dream to be more communal and less materialistic. I spoke with Martin about how young people are reinventing the concept of "better off." This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
In your intro, you write, “The problem was that I didn’t wanna become adult if it meant falling in line.” What do you mean by this?
Well I felt like there’s sort of a version of maturity and more specifically a kind of American maturity that to me is sort of like an upper-middle-class version of American life. Seems like you sort of turn off the critical thinking part of your brain and just kind of try to survive.
Things like in your 20s you were totally engaged in political activism and in your 30s you decide you don’t have time for that because you’re trying to raise your own kids. You kind of put all of your energy into cultivating their perfect world.
Or in your 20s, you are really struggling to find a meaningful job so that you can also pay your rent. Then you get some sort of position that allows you to make some substantial money for the first time. You decide it’s pretty cushy and awesome having money. So you sort of stop pursuing some of the things that you are most passionate about that weren’t lucrative.
I watched that in the world and also in individual people that I knew and also heard the narratives around that, like a sitcom making fun of those kind of things. I just felt like I don’t want that to be me.
I do want to have a family. I want to have kids, but I want to stay engaged. I want to continue to be critical about how much money is enough money or sort of the systems that I’m a part of and complicit in. That all kind of scared me, in terms of sort of what does it mean to grow up in America and become a adult.
These kinds of frustrations have been around since the beginning of time or at least since the beginning of our capitalist society, but people are really beginning to push back in a way at a level that they haven’t before. It's a response to the great recession of ’08 and the way that fundamentally reshuffled our society. Can you talk some about that?
The recession was, in some ways, this opportunity is for a lot of people, including a lot of people who thought of themselves as comfortable. But they saw the bottom drop out when mortgages proved to be flimsy and all of these things happened to people’s nest eggs.
It really confronted people with transformative questions where they’re asking, “How should I live? How should I work? Is this big house that I actually couldn’t afford making me happy?” or “Is this job that I thought was secure and now lost?” “Did it ever really fulfill my expectations for how I wanted to use the majority of my energy on a given week?”
I think the silver lining of the recession for me, and I think for a lot of people, was that it was a real inspiration to re-evaluate what we are investing our money and our energy and our time into.
I say in the book that the biggest danger is not failing to achieve the American dream. It’s achieving a dream that you don’t actually believe in. Which I think is a very easy thing to do when you kind of get on the treadmill. It can be very easy to strive, to achieve a dream that it turns out you don’t believe in.
The recession took the air out of that dream for a lot of people. It also exposed how broken a lot of our systems are.
We have to rebuild the social safety net and we have to hold big banks accountable. We need to rethink about how much we invest locally versus at a larger scale. There are all these important systemic questions. But I think on the personal level the recession motivated a lot of people to ask, Was this the dream I wanted in the first place?
You are very clear in the book that you’re not trying to romanticize the rug being pulled out economically, especially from the millennial generation.
Right, exactly. Which is why I’m really interested in, for example, how labor organizing is changing. It's not that I’m arguing that there shouldn’t be any job security, but I’m arguing job security is largely a delusion at this point for most people. There’s just like such low union membership. So given that that’s the reality, who is trying to reinvent labor organizing? Who is trying to reinvent the social safety net?
It’s kind of "and both" approach where I’m saying 14.8 percent of people live in poverty and they are not better off. But it would be shortsighted of us to think that those 14.8 percent of people aren’t doing some really interesting things to kind of reweave the fabric of neighborhoods and in their own lives. It's to our detriment if we tell that story in an overly simplistic way or in a way that only looks at the decline of unions as an example.
The media narrative tends to victimize poor people in a way. I believe that journalists are trying to do the right thing, which is cover the fact that there is this increase in poverty and this widening class gap. But what sometimes also happens is this reduction of and stereotyping of who poor people are.
In my reporting and research, I found that a lot of people I talked to with the least amount of money were doing the most interesting and sometimes healthy things — depending on one another and organizing with each other to get their needs met and that kind of thing.
One of the big things that you address in this book is the fact that homeownership rates for millennials are down. This is reported in the mainstream media as an unvarnished tragedy. But you take a much more complicated view of it. Can you talk about what that is?
What does it actually mean to own a home? How important is that to people?
Obviously there is a sense that you have more security if you own your own home because you own it and you’re not vulnerable to a landlord’s random decisions about that space. But when the bubble burst, it showed that a lot of people who thought they had the security of homeownership actually were in pretty tenuous conditions themselves. Going beyond your financial comfort zone to own a home that you can't actually afford isn’t a very secure place to be, financially or mentally.
That led me down this path of then getting interested in alternatives to homeownership in its most traditional sense, which is sort of the white picket fence in the suburbs kind of thing.
I particularly talked a lot about choosing. I actually live in a cohousing community in Oakland. There are 20 people or so, 12 units where we each have an individual home with kind of the typical stuff a home has. But we also share an industrial-sized kitchen and eating area. Twice a week we eat together. Once a month we work together on the land. Generally we see one another as kind of an extended family. We have renters and owners in this community.
It has just created such a sense of well-being and abundance for me personally. It is so much healthier and promotes a kind of a flourishing, rather than straining yourself to get that mortgage, 'cause it’s what your parents and your aunt and your uncles think makes you a successful human being.
There's also multigenerational housing. The main top-line narrative in the media is that lazy millennials are moving home. The truth is there’s a huge growth in multigenerational housing. For the majority of people in studies who are surveyed about their experience, I would say, it’s actually improved their relationships with the people they live with. We actually like being among different generations. It gives us a different perspective and allows us to help each other out at different life stages.
I really attempted to kind of get some of the nuance of those things, as opposed to this default idea being that owning a home means you’re somehow successful or safer.
Well and it’s interesting, too, because a lot of this shift has been because young people are moving back to the cities and out of suburbia. Do you think that this is about more than economics?
The place where cohousing in particular has thrived the most is in urban settings, like the East Bay where I live. A lot of people have this stereotype that any kind of communal living is sort of a hippie throwback like people in rural areas or in the wilderness. The uptake is urban.
The urbanization and density of communities is something that millennials in particular are embracing. It's [as] simple as Friday nights at a museum where everyone goes and drinks beer and hangs out together. Young people are saying like, “We want this kind of life. We wanna know our neighbors. We want to be a force for good in a local context not just at the national or global scale.”
I see a lot of younger people who are saying, “No, like I actually wanna know the people I live around, and I want to invest in a place.”
You write about how people are examining the value of money with greater scrutiny in the context of a life "well-lived, not just well-earned and well-consumed." Can you elaborate on this?
I'm super interested in the research that’s out there about the correlation between money and happiness. Up until a certain point, having more money does improve your quality of life. Beyond that, it actually doesn’t.
We’ve had this sort of default setting in America that the more money you earn, the better your life is. And that anyone would be a fool to ever turn down making more money. In fact, when you look at the research, those who make the most money are often not the ones who have the highest quality of life, for a variety of reasons.
One is that if you make more money, you often have to work a lot more. A lot of those people are workaholics and don’t actually get to enjoy the money they’re making.
I just wanted to kind of unpack some that dogma we have about how making more money is always better. I profile a few people who have made choices around not making as much money as they could, for exactly those reasons. They looked critically at their own parents’ lives or the lives of people around them and made a decision that they wanted to have more time with the people they love and more time to do the things that they’re passionate about that may not be lucrative.