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The New American Dream: Courtney Martin (Transcript)

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Courtney Martin at TED Talks

Courtney Martin – TED Talk TRANSCRIPT

I’m a journalist, so I like to look for the untold stories, the lives that quietly play out under the scream of headlines.

I’ve also been going about the business of putting down roots, choosing a partner, making babies.

So for the last few years, I’ve been trying to understand what constitutes the 21st-century good life, both because I’m fascinated by the moral and philosophical implications, but also because I’m in desperate need of answers myself.

We live in tenuous times. In fact, for the first time in American history, the majority of parents do not think that their kids will be better off than they were. This is true of rich and poor, men and women.

Now, some of you might hear this and feel sad. After all, America is deeply invested in this idea of economic transcendence, that every generation kind of leapfrogs the one before it, earning more, buying more, being more.

We’ve exported this dream all over the world, so kids in Brazil and China and even Kenya inherit our insatiable expectation for more.

But when I read this historic poll for the first time, it didn’t actually make me feel sad. It felt like a provocation. “Better off” — based on whose standards? Is “better off” finding a secure job that you can count on for the rest of your life? Those are nearly extinct.

People move jobs, on average, every 4.7 years, and it’s estimated that by 2020, nearly half of Americans will be freelancers. OK, so is better off just a number? Is it about earning as much as you possibly can?

By that singular measurement, we are failing. Median per capita income has been flat since about 2000, adjusted for inflation.

All right, so is better off getting a big house with a white picket fence? Less of us are doing that. Nearly 5 million people lost their homes in the Great Recession, and even more of us sobered up about the lengths we were willing to go — or be tricked into going, in many predatory cases — to hold that deed.

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Home-ownership rates are at their lowest since 1995. All right, so we’re not finding steady employment, we’re not earning as much money, and we’re not living in big fancy houses. Toll the funeral bells for everything that made America great.

But are those the best measurements of a country’s greatness, of a life well lived? What I think makes America great is its spirit of reinvention.

In the wake of the Great Recession, more and more Americans are redefining what “better off” really means. Turns out, it has more to do with community and creativity than dollars and cents.

Now, let me be very clear: the 14.8% of Americans living in poverty need money, plain and simple. And all of us need policies that protect us from exploitation by employers and financial institutions.

Nothing that follows is meant to suggest that the gap between rich and poor is anything but profoundly immoral. But too often we let the conversation stop there.

We talk about poverty as if it were a monolithic experience; about the poor as if they were solely victims. Part of what I’ve learned in my research and reporting is that the art of living well is often practiced most masterfully by the most vulnerable.

Now, if necessity is the mother of invention, I’ve come to believe that recession can be the father of consciousness. It confronts us with profound questions… questions we might be too lazy or distracted to ask in times of relative comfort.

How should we work? How should we live? All of us, whether we realize it or not, seek answers to these questions, with our ancestors kind of whispering in our ears.

My great-grandfather was a drunk in Detroit, who sometimes managed to hold down a factory job. He had, as unbelievable as it might sound, 21 children, with one woman, my great-grandmother, who died at 47 years old of ovarian cancer.

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Now, I’m pregnant with my second child, and I cannot even fathom what she must have gone through. And if you’re trying to do the math — there were six sets of twins.

So my grandfather, their son, became a traveling salesman, and he lived boom and bust. So my dad grew up answering the door for debt collectors and pretending his parents weren’t home. He actually took his braces off himself with pliers in the garage, when his father admitted he didn’t have money to go back to the orthodontist.

So my dad, unsurprisingly, became a bankruptcy lawyer. Couldn’t write this in a novel, right? He was obsessed with providing a secure foundation for my brother and I.

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