Last week, it was announced that in 2015 Americans enjoyed the largest economic gains in a generation. Incomes went up, the sharpest one-year increase since 1967. Poverty went down, faster in one year than has been observed in decades. Health insurance is easier to access than ever. So why don’t more Americans feel more prosperous?
For starters, many of us are genuinely confused about how wealthy we actually are. The Pew Charitable Trust defines middle class as households that earn between 67 and 200% of a state’s median income. That definition doesn’t mean much to the fragile American ego, always looking left and right to see what the folks in the next cubicle, car, or condo seem to be earning. Also according to Pew, nine out of 10 Americans—people teetering on the poverty line all the way up to those bringing in hundreds of thousands of dollars a year—consider themselves middle class.
But beyond our compulsion to “keep up with the Joneses,” there’s a deeper reason for the gap between the reality—that the majority of Americans are doing a bit better than they were last year—and how we feel: Too many of us are still telling an old story about success.
Here’s the old story: Success equals a secure, full-time job with a benefits-providing employer, plus a nuclear family, and a lily-white picket fence with a big house behind it.
That story has become virtually impossible to attain for the majority of Americans. People move jobs, on average, every 4.7 years. It is predicted that nearly half of the American workforce will be freelance by 2020—some by choice, some by necessity. Only one in 10 workers today is a union member, down from one third of all workers just 50 years ago.
The so-called nuclear family is now a minority in America. More than 80% of the 12 million single parent families in 2015 were headed by single mothers. About 40 to 50% of marriages end in divorce, but many people aren’t even getting married in the first place; 57% of parents ages 26 to 31 are having kids outside of marriage. That 57% tends to live in areas with high income inequality. Few have college degrees or decent jobs.
Further, the ratio of debt to disposable personal income in U.S. households rose from 77% in 1990 to 127% at the end of 2007; much of this increase is mortgage-related. Nearly 5 million people lost homes in the wake of the Great Recession. People of color and women were disproportionately targeted with subprime mortgages. Even high-income people of color were preyed upon. In 2006, at the height of the housing boom, black and Hispanic families making more than $200,000 a year were more likely on average to be given a subprime loan than a white family making less than $30,000 a year.
So it’s harder to attain the so-called American Dream, but here’s the good news: It rarely made people feel successful—or at the very least happy, healthy, and safe.
On the one hand, of course, the decline of unions is not good for workers, especially those who don’t enjoy the privilege of Ivy League degrees or family-provided safety nets. There have been some critical union-driven wins for the working poor in this country in recent years, particularly when it comes to the $15 minimum wage and stable work schedules.
On the other hand, the idea that a fulltime job automatically equals stable employment, or comes with comprehensive benefits, is a fallacy that too many workers feel duped by after signing on the dotted line. For some, they can actually make more money going freelance, particularly now that the Affordable Care Act has made healthcare more attainable for those outside of traditional employment.
Despite rightwing fear-mongering, the decline of the “traditional family” is not grounds for panic (moral or otherwise). As Stephanie Coontz points out in The Way We Never Were, the 1950s ideal of the trusty dad bringing home the bacon and the happy homemaker mom raising polite, well-coiffed children was always a fiction (just ask Betty Friedan about the “feminine mystique”). Sociological research proves that the families that are healthiest, safest, and happiest understand the virtues of the village mentality; they know and depend on their neighbors in both thick and thin times. A record 60.6 million Americans now live in intergenerational housing and interest in cohousing and other cooperative living arrangements are skyrocketing.
We’ve sobered up about the blessings and burdens of home ownership. According to the Census’ Housing Vacancy Survey, homeownership dropped to 64.8% in 2014, the lowest level since 1995. Americans 35 and under are buying the least: 36.2%, the lowest on record since the Survey began tracking homeownership by age in 1982.
Young people who are buying homes tend to have one thing in common: rich, generous parents. More than half of young adults who have managed to afford a home have received both tuition assistance from their parents (and, therefore, graduate with less debt) and help with a down payment. These “doubly lucky” kids—as Zillow calls them—may represent more than half of young homeowners, but tellingly, only 3% of young adults overall.
When you connect the dots between these statistics—people leaving fulltime employment for more flexible jobs, families shedding tired narratives about the optimum of nuclear structure and reclaiming village life in various forms, and homeownership rates going down—a new story about success starts to take shape.
The new story goes something like this: Success equals work that is flexible, meaningful, and comes with a fair wage, plus a just-big-enough home surrounded by a vibrant, strong community.
As that becomes our aspiration, especially among the younger generations, it changes the rules of the game. We’re not willing to rot in cubicle hell for health insurance or put up with exploitative asshole bosses if we think we might be able to make a go of it freelance. We’re not willing to abandon union values, but recognize that labor organizing has to be reinvented, trying out new strategies and taking new structures. The portable social safety net is a hot topic among a strange mix of folks—old school organizers, Silicon Valley CEOs, and Congress, alike. We’re not expecting our partners to fulfill every single logistical and emotional need we have, instead looking to our friends and extended families and neighbors to support, entertain, and love us. We’re not willing to take on more debt beyond that which we already have in order to say we have a deed. Home ownership, to many, feels more like a burden than a status symbol.
There is true freedom in lower expectations, or perhaps more accurately, in altered expectations. We may not yet feel economically prosperous, despite the good news from last week, because our cultural narratives haven’t caught up to our new consciousness. In the wake of the Great Recession, more and more people are re-examining what they want from their lives—how and where they want to work, where and how they want to live. We need new terms for the tired old debates, new metrics for the good life, new dreams for America.
Courtney E. Martin is the author of The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, out from Seal Press this month. You can learn more about her work at www.courtneyemartin.com
Courtney E. Martin is an author, entrepreneur, and weekly columnist for On Being. Her latest book, The New Better Off, explores how people are re-defining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun, less debt, status, and stuff). Courtney is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize.