The Great Yuppie Debate: II — Do Yuppies Make Good Citizens?

The temptation to join in the Great Yuppie Debate of 1985 is hard to resist. Newsweek’s now-famous cover story on young urban professionals [December 31, 1984] did not start the discussions but did move it to a higher level of intensity. After all, it’s not every day that one gets to speculate about people like one California woman profiled in the Newsweek special report. Explaining how she met her second husband while on a honeymoon trip with spouse number one, the 28-year-old attorney said, “I know it sounds shocking, but there are times in your life when you just have to go after what you want.” The entire story, it turns out, is but a set of variations on this less than exalted theme—the wanting, the going-after, and, in many cases, the getting. Some readers responded with disbelief, others with mere envy, to repeated tales of thirty-year-old junior execs with six-figure incomes. And while critics had questions about the extent of the Yuppie kingdom, few went as far as the New Republic, which sidestepped the issue, but poked fun at the “social-trend” cover story itself.

Still, there are good reasons why Yuppies should be of interest to those who educate the young or care for the souls of persons of all ages. And in a democracy, in which government is ultimately based on public opinion, the tastes and wants of articulate citizens have obvious political significance. We who constitute the social order in which this particular social trend is unfolding must at least try to understand it. The Newsweek article—long on anecdote, short on analysis—is thus only a starting point.

At the core of the Yuppie phenomenon is a set of attitudes about money. More than simply making and spending large amounts of money, the young people described in the cover-story look at others through the lens of financial possibilities. This applies not only to job prospects or peer networks, but to more intimate matters as well. In the seventies, feminists complained that professional men married women beneath them in educational or social status. If that was true then, it may no longer be true today. As one 28-year-old Denver lawyer told Newsweek, “our marriages seem like mergers.” Not only do career wives make interesting companions, they are themselves likely to be plugged into networks which matter. Many two-career couples find themselves with combined incomes at the start of their working lives greater than a4their parents ever enjoyed.

It is not surprising that none of the couples profiled in Newsweek had children, although many talk about having families—later. A walk through the business districts of big cities at lunch time shows one clear manifestation of this delay in child-rearing. Shoppers crowd toy stores for adults—camera and stereo shops, computer and sporting good stores, quality clothiers, gourmet food and wine shops, and, of course, travel agents. Or check the health club parking lots on Saturday mornings—twenty years ago, those sports cars would have been station wagons en route to Little League tryout and Girl Scout troop meetings. And while a concern for the health of the body, a refined taste in food, and an intellectual curiosity about electronic gadgets are not in themselves bad things, an excessive love of comfort and ease, and the constant indulgence of frivolous desires, are matters of social concern. Perhaps the issue is as simple as this—Yuppies have more money than other people think they know how to spend wisely. But perhaps there is something more.

!n wanting, Yuppies share a characteristic with many other groups. In going after and getting, they distinguish themselves from those who merely want others to give. Herein lies the fact of primary interest for those concerned with the political behavior of young urban professionals. One of life’s most important lessons is learning that the social welfare programs one advocated in college are funded by things like the sales tax on your BMW. Real-estate speculation in up-and-coming city neighborhoods adds fresh appreciation of police and fire departments—it’s no fun to come back after a week at Club Med to find the wine cellar ransacked and the VCR gone. So it is asserted that the campus liberals of the seventies are now the economic conservatives of the eighties—and the posturing of both Democratic and Republican politicians indicates that many believe this to be true. Yuppies are an indication of the success of the American economic system: coming from non-elite backgrounds, they have achieved considerable economic success as a result of talent, intelligence, and lots of hard work. They ask government to protect their possessions and take less of their earnings. Capitalism works for them; therefore, it is good. But while Republicans call themselves the party of economic opportunity, Democrats warn potential converts of a loss of personal freedoms in a Republican world.

More important than the allegiance of Yuppies to the Democratic or Republican parties, however, is the question of their allegiance to the American regime itself. I do not mean to suggest that Yuppies are disloyal in any conventional sense. I mean, rather, that the primary source of their loyalty appears to be the prosperity and comfort this country makes possible. The American Founders thought they were establishing a government based on certain true principles. It is our good fortune that the freedoms protected by those principles have worked to the economic advantage of many—though not all—Americans. But while the material blessings we enjoy flow from them, the principles themselves would be true, and worth defending, even if other economic outcomes had occurred. Yuppies appear to be committed more to the results than to the principles themselves.

The Founders were also aware that the government they created would depend on a particular type of citizen—a citizen educated for liberty, whose self-interest could at times be moderated to accommodate competing claims, for the good of the whole. Yet the American regime both depends on such citizens and does almost nothing to foster their development. That is left to the private world of families, churches, and voluntary organizations. When the best educated, most successful members of the body politic think of marriages as mergers, and wine and champagne collections as substitutes for children, when Yuppie minister Rev. Terry Cole-Whittaker preaches, “You can have it all—now,”‘ it may be time to question how well public spiritedness and concern for the common good is being fostered. One Yuppie tee-shirt reads: “Nuclear War? What About My Career?” I have never seen, but can easily imagine its counterpart: “No Abortion? What About My Career?” More than money, more than a taste for luxury, the issue which should be debated is the question of selfishness and convenience.

Within the context of careers and compensation, the Yuppie story to date is a tale of success. These young lawyers, bankers and public relations experts do what they do quite well—although at present this primarily seems to involve managing ideas and property created by others. As it is an open question what kind of parents they will make, so too is it unclear how well they have prepared for the inevitable setbacks in life, to say nothing of the end of life itself. If material success has come, for many, at the cost of a deeper appreciation of things of more lasting value, then any sense of envy one has reading stories like this in Newsweek is entirely misplaced.


  • Thomas Skladony

    At the time this article was written, Thomas Skladony was a research assistant for the Congress Project at the American Enterprise Institute.

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