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.
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.
So I ask these questions by way of a few generations of struggle. My parents made sure that I grew up on a kind of steady ground that allows one to question and risk and leap.
And ironically, and probably sometimes to their frustration, it is their steadfast commitment to security that allows me to question its value, or at least its value as we’ve historically defined it in the 21st century.
So let’s dig into this first question: How should we work?
We should work like our mothers. That’s right — we’ve spent decades trying to fit women into a work world built for company men. And many have done backbends to fit in, but others have carved a more unconventional path, creating a patchwork of meaning and money with enough flexibility to do what they need to do for those that they love.
My mom called it “just making it work.” Today I hear life coaches call it “a portfolio career.” Whatever you call it, more and more men are craving these whole, if not harried, lives. They’re waking up to their desire and duty to be present fathers and sons.
Now, artist Ann Hamilton has said, “Labor is a way of knowing.” Labor is a way of knowing. In other words, what we work on is what we understand about the world. If this is true, and I think it is, then women who have disproportionately cared for the little ones and the sick ones and the aging ones, have disproportionately benefited from the most profound kind of knowing there is: knowing the human condition.
By prioritizing care, men are, in a sense, staking their claim to the full range of human existence. Now, this means the nine-to-five no longer works for anyone. Punch clocks are becoming obsolete, as are career ladders. Whole industries are being born and dying every day. It’s all nonlinear from here.
So we need to stop asking kids, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” and start asking them, “How do you want to be when you grow up?”
Their work will constantly change. The common denominator is them. So the more they understand their gifts and create crews of ideal collaborators, the better off they will be. The challenge ahead is to reinvent the social safety net to fit this increasingly fragmented economy.
We need portable health benefits. We need policies that reflect that everyone deserves to be vulnerable or care for vulnerable others, without becoming destitute.
We need to seriously consider a universal basic income. We need to reinvent labor organizing. The promise of a work world that is structured to actually fit our 21st century values, not some archaic idea about bringing home the bacon, is long overdue — just ask your mother.
Now, how about the second question: How should we live?
We should live like our immigrant ancestors. When they came to America, they often shared apartments, survival tactics, child care — always knew how to fill one more belly, no matter how small the food available.
But they were told that success meant leaving the village behind and pursuing that iconic symbol of the American Dream, the white picket fence. And even today, we see a white picket fence and we think success, self-possession.
But when you strip away the sentimentality, what it really does is divides us. Many Americans are rejecting the white picket fence and the kind of highly privatized life that happened within it, and reclaiming village life, reclaiming interdependence instead.