The Great Yuppie Debate: I — Producing and Consuming at White Heat

Back in the Sixties, when the first wave of Baby Boomers was rioting and draft-card burning and drug taking, articles were written tracing their behavior to the indulgence of their parents. Post-war mothers and fathers, many of them more permissive than their own parents, and with money enough to put their permissive principles into practice, showered their children with material things, the writers of articles argued, and left them, like Oscar Wilde’s cynic, knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing. Baby Boomers had a free ride and valued it accordingly.

Back in the Sixties, one of the things that most exasperated the older generation about the younger was its sloth. “The Meathead” in “Ali in the Family” was the symbol of this generation: the perpetual student whose days of gainful employment were pushed back somewhere into the distant future. He was a parasite, living off his father-in-law. His condition struck a nerve in many parents divided between pride in their children’s intellectual sophistication and fear of their continued financial dependency.

Most of these Sixties adolescents and post-adolescents eventually left the academy and the street corner for jobs of one kind or another. Many, in the difficult economic conditions of the Seventies, found their living standards deteriorating from those their parents had achieved, rather than improving, as their parents had expected. (The American myth of never-ending upward mobility dies hard, especially in those families only a generation or two off the boat; many of the Baby Boomers fell into this category, for theirs was the first generation to migrate en masse to college.) Two-income households soared, not just because of Betty Friedan but also because of the difficulty of meeting expenses on one income. Family size and the percentage of homeowners declined.

All of this provides an educational contrast to the lifestyle and fortunes of the Eighties symbol of young adulthood—the Yuppie. Yuppies are also Baby Boomers, but they are the more prosperous, upwardly-mobile segment. Strictly speaking, they make up only a small percentage of adults in their twenties and thirties. Newsweek, in its December 1984 discovery of the Yuppie, quoted a research group’s yardstick of “an income of $40,000 or more from a professional or management job” and came up with 4 million qualifiers between the ages of 25 and 39. Of these, 1.2 million were urban dwellers.

Still, Yuppies are a symbol of the age, as The Meathead was a symbol of his. But what they symbolize has little or nothing to do with the Sixties. For the typical Yuppie lifestyle is distinguished by two characteristics: conspicuous consumption and an enormous appetite for work.

Sloth is not the sin of the Eighties. However much the Yuppie was indulged in youth, he sets out for his law firm or investment banking firm or ad agency with the mentality of a college student facing multiple all-nighters at the end of term. While the Sixties stereotype of the Baby Boomers stressed low-energy activities like sit-ins and smoking dope, the Eighties version is “work hard, play hard.” Yuppies will routinely work extra hours in the evenings and on weekends, stuffing energy-charged “leisure” activities in the gaps. Not for nothing do they don running shoes to commute to work; figuratively and sometimes literally, they live life on the run.

“Playing hard” means playing as intensively and competitively and demandingly as you work. The fitness boom unites both sides of the Yuppies’ lifestyle, for the hard-muscled Yuppie is presumably better able to endure his long hours on the job. The old-style workaholic, living on coffee, cigarettes, danish and three-martini lunches, has been replaced by a leaner and meaner variety.

What has work got to do with the aspect of Yuppie life that most fascinates and repels the general public—conspicuous consumption? Yuppies are not only conspicuous consumers but also, in their professional capacities, conspicuous producers (though we may question whether, for example, the Yuppie lawyer’s production is a great boon to mankind). Both producing and consuming are accomplished at white heat. Intensity is both the Yuppie style and the Yuppie goal; since his long work hours leave him little leisure time, what there is had better be quality. Or as the Newsweek cover story puts it: “He is in the Yuppie bind of having to work hard to afford the kind of luxuries that make hard work possible….He has a feeling that if he had to spend his leisure hours cleaning out the basement instead, his 12-hour days at the office would seem a lot less bearable.”

This goes far towards explaining (though not excusing) Yuppie fastidiousness and the short shelf life of most Yuppie enthusiasms. Yuppies get bored easily. Last month’s white chocolate mousse doesn’t have quite the kick it used to, so it’s on to something new. Gourmet take-out food not only saves cooking time after a long day’s work, but tastes better than anything most people can whip up at nine or ten o’clock at night. Video cassette recorders allow the Yuppie to fit television schedules into his own, insuring that there’ll be something worth watching when he is in the mood for TV. Viewed from a certain perspective, almost all Yuppie expenditures can be defended. And that is the perspective from which Yuppies view their expenditures.

Paradoxically, this defense of the logic of their purchases is what most bothers the non-Yuppie. It is not so much the money Yuppies spend or even, sometimes, what they spend it on—all of us splurge on ourselves at times. It is the Yuppie attitude, which transforms luxuries into near-necessities, that grates.

Take Newsweek’s profile of the couple who have started a wine cellar instead of a family: ” ‘I guess this is a substitute for children,’ says Raeanne as she lovingly fondles a prize Perrier Jouet”—part of a 180-bottle wine collection. Raeanne and her husband also stock Tiffany Bloody Mary mugs, five kinds of vinegar and wild rice shipped to them from Minnesota. Almost anyone could, I think, imagine wanting some or all of these items and perhaps even acquiring them. But distinctive to the Yuppie is the freedom from that frisson of guilt that tells you before you take out your credit card that you are about to do something ridiculous, if not immoral.

The Yuppie typically lacks that sense of guilt because his hard work convinces him that he has earned exotic pleasures. A puritanical streak makes him frown on free rides, but he thinks all of his rides have been paid for to the hilt. So he samples life’s pleasures almost therapeutically, to heal his work-worn soul.

Non-Yuppies, of course, can and often do work as hard or harder than Yuppies. My father, like many others, worked two jobs throughout my childhood and adolescence, until his last child finished college. In the all-too-brief periods when he was home, he could be found mowing lawns, shoveling snow, painting the house, cleaning the windows and the like. My mother worked part-time in addition to cleaning the house without benefit of a maid and bringing up children without benefit of day care.

So Yuppies are not a uniquely hard-working class. They are unique in regarding luxuries as necessities and in being able to afford them. They are unusual in accepting the best the material world has, to offer as their due. They give themselves gifts (“You owe it to yourself,” the ads tell them); they are their own dependents.

What’s going on here is not easy to sum up in a sentence. Certainly it isn’t as simple as saying that Yuppies are selfish and non-Yuppies are unselfish. My parents, for example, had children because they wanted them, not because they were practicing a bloodless altruism. The sacrifices the average parent makes in time, money, emotional involvement, and privacy are genuine, but so are the rewards. Non-Yuppies are not making themselves miserable for the sake of preserving the species. And Yuppies, for their part, make many sacrifices of time and private life for the sake of their careers. The difference is that the average parent is reaching outside himself, while the Yuppie finds this difficult to do.

The problems Yuppies have with “relationships” are well-documented, since they are always talking about them. Newsweek profiled a Denver lawyer who says he has “gone through a number of important relationships which have failed because my commitment to my job was greater than my commitment to the relationship,” although “I’d like to get married, have a family…I’d like to move to that step without too much trauma.”

It’s easy to see why the Denver lawyer is having problems and is likely to continue having them, especially when we consider that the female Yuppies with whom he seeks relationships have priorities similar to his. The moral problem of the Yuppie lifestyle goes deeper than rampant consumerism; it penetrates to the Yuppie’s self-consumedness. Putting people above career and lifestyle isn’t a guarantee of generosity or unselfishness, but it is a condition for these qualities. Wanting children, even at the cost of curtailed social life and enormous new demands, doesn’t prove you’ll be a good parent, but that’s where being a good parent starts. The classic Yuppie, with his fear of intimacy, his high-powered career and his belief that he has earned the good life, has built himself large roadblocks on the way to moral maturity.

Materialism is the most visible symptom of the disease, but something even more serious encourages it. Yuppies at their Yuppiest value other people too little rather than material things too highly. Nature abhors a vacuum, and hence you find Raeanne’s Perrier Jouet filling in for the kids.

I have been working from the assumption that the Yuppie, in his pure state, is childless. This is because the classic Yuppie lifestyle, including the fear of entangling personal commitments, almost requires childlessness. Yuppies who become parents are, if not full-fledged graduates from Yuppieism, at least Yuppies in transition. They may still drive a BMW and acquire expensive gadgets, but they will be going out less, budgeting more and earmarking more of their expenditures for their children (whether or not this has a good effect on the children’s moral development, it marks an improvement in that of the parents). In the cities, much of today’s mini-Baby Boom is propagated by former Yuppies; you see the fathers playing ball in the park with their sons on weekends and the mothers accompanied by daughters wheeling Cabbage Patch strollers.

So perhaps Yuppies don’t pose as great a moral and spiritual threat to the nation as their high profile might at first suggest. Most Americans—including Baby Boomers—are still living quite different lives. And full-blown Yuppie materialism can be transcended, even by Yuppies. They may look for trendy labels when shopping for baby or be a bit too ambitious about their child’s intellectual development; they may get caught up in gourmet baby foods and prestigious private schools, but they will be extending themselves, reaching out beyond themselves and the narrow time frame of immediate gratification.

How many Yuppies will ultimately “graduate” cannot be predicted. And how complete the metamorphosis will vary from person to person. Once in love with sushi, some may find it hard to settle for dinner at Wendy’s with the kids. But such preferences are vestigial reminders of the past and not indelible proofs of identity.

A generation or two hence, people may imagine, as Newsweek does now, that this was the “Year of the Yuppie.” It is the year we read and wrote and talked about Yuppies, but that is all. Yuppieism is merely the idiosyncratic form taken by materialism and egoism in our age, among a sharply defined population. Nothing to cheer about, something to resist, with laughter as much as with serious criticism, but not, please God, a national catastrophe.


  • Ellen Wilson Fielding

    Ellen Wilson Fielding is a writer and former contributing editor to Crisis Magazine.

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