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.
50 million of us, for example, live in intergenerational households. This number exploded with the Great Recession, but it turns out people actually like living this way.
Two-thirds of those who are living with multiple generations under one roof say it’s improved their relationships. Some people are choosing to share homes not with family, but with other people who understand the health and economic benefits of daily community.
CoAbode, an online platform for single moms looking to share homes with other single moms, has 50,000 users. And people over 65 are especially prone to be looking for these alternative living arrangements.
They understand that their quality of life depends on a mix of solitude and solidarity. Which is true of all of us when you think about it, young and old alike.
For too long, we’ve pretended that happiness is a king in his castle. But all the research proves otherwise. It shows that the healthiest, happiest and even safest — in terms of both climate change disaster, in terms of crime, all of that — are Americans who live lives intertwined with their neighbors.
Now, I’ve experienced this firsthand. For the last few years, I’ve been living in a cohousing community. It’s 1.5 acres of persimmon trees, this prolific blackberry bush that snakes around a community garden, all smack-dab, by the way, in the middle of urban Oakland. The nine units are all built to be different, different sizes, different shapes, but they’re meant to be as green as possible.
So big, shiny black solar cells on our roof mean our electricity bill rarely exceeds more than five bucks in a month. The 25 of us who live there are all different ages and political persuasions and professions, and we live in homes that have everything a typical home would have.
But additionally, we share an industrial-sized kitchen and eating area, where we have common meals twice a week. Now, people, when I tell them I live like this, often have one of two extreme reactions. Either they say, “Why doesn’t everyone live like this?” Or they say, “That sounds totally horrifying. I would never want to do that.”
So let me reassure you: there is a sacred respect for privacy among us, but also a commitment to what we call “radical hospitality” — not the kind advertised by the Four Seasons, but the kind that says that every single person is worthy of kindness, full stop, end of sentence.