Wednesday, October 22, 2008

McInerney on Yuppies

Another article from the 40th anniversary edition of New York Magazine: Yuppies in Eden, by Jay McInerney. I have to quote at length here, with my own emphasis added:

Not long after my first actual sighting [of a supposed yuppie, in 1983], I would see the earliest DIE YUPPIE SCUM graffiti around the neighborhood, an epithet that was soon vying in popularity with that LES perennial EAT THE RICH. The vituperative tone with which the Y-word was pronounced on East Fifth Street was in part a function of rapidly escalating real-estate prices in the East Village; after decades of relative stability that had made the area a bastion of Eastern European immigrants and young bohemians, though, it’s easy to forget at this distance that it was also a war zone where muggings and rapes weren’t considered news. The Hells Angels ruled East Third Street, and after dark you went east of Second Avenue strictly at your own risk. The cops didn’t go there. East Tenth beyond Avenue A was a narcotics supermarket where preteen runners scampered in and out of bombed-out tenements. In fact, great swatches of the city were dirty and crime-ridden. Even the West Village was pretty gritty by today’s standards, and Times Square was a scene of spectacular squalor. Check out Taxi Driver or The French Connection if you want to get a sense of what this urban wasteland looked like.
It wasn’t just the way the city looked, though. New York was, on the whole, a much more parochial place back then, much more divided along ethnic and class lines. Little Italy was still mostly Italian, the East Village heavily Ukrainian. Wealthy Wasps still clustered on the Upper East Side, west of Third Avenue, and Harlem, of course, was 99 percent black, and many white people lived in mortal terror of nodding off on the subway and waking up at 145th Street. The white middle class was draining away from the city, heroin was epidemic, and crime rampant. When I first moved here, getting mugged was a rite of passage. Both of my first two apartments were broken into, and the 1966 Volkswagen my parents bought me for graduation was stolen not once but twice. This was pre-yuppie Manhattan, a city, dare I say it, in desperate need of gentrification.
In the latter half of the seventies, it was a semi-serious idea that the city would be abandoned by the affluent, the young, and the fleet, left to the poor and the halt and the aged. But sometime after the election of Ronald Reagan, in 1980, it became clear that New York had pulled up its socks and reversed the fiscal, physical, and psychic dilapidation of the seventies. The stock market began a steady ascent, which created new jobs on Wall Street. At some point, the influx of ambitious young strivers started to exceed the exodus, and while many of them gravitated toward the traditionally bourgeois neighborhoods of the Upper East Side, others began to reclaim the housing stock of previously marginal or downright dangerous areas like upper Amsterdam and Columbus, or to colonize old factory buildings in nonresidential neighborhoods like Soho and Tribeca and the East Village. When artists did this, it was called homesteading. When people whose day jobs required them to wear leather shoes (yuppies) followed the artists, it was called gentrification....

“Who are all those upwardly mobile folk with designer water, running shoes, pickled parquet floors, and $450,000 condos in semi-slum buildings?” asked Time magazine in its January 9, 1984, issue. “Yuppies,” we were informed, “are dedicated to the twin goals of making piles of money and achieving perfection through physical fitness and therapy.” The Yuppie Handbook, which had just been published, defined its subject: “(hot new name for Young Urban Professional): A person of either sex who meets the following criteria: (1) resides in or near one of the major cities; (2) claims to be between the ages of 25 and 45; (3) lives on aspirations of glory, prestige, recognition, fame, social status, power, money, or any and all combinations of the above; (4) anyone who brunches on the weekends or works out after work.”
Apparently, the creatures anatomized in The Yuppie Handbook were just common enough to elicit recognition, but not so general as to provoke a shrug. The concepts of “brunching” and “working out” were apparently new and humorous. A few of their defining characteristics—dhurrie rugs, potted ferns, pickled parquet floors—sound suitably dated. But many more—European automobiles, gourmet kitchens, computer literacy, designer clothing, and sushi—fail 25 years later to convey the exoticism that the authors seem to have intended. Oh, those wacky yuppies, eating raw fish and going to the gym.....

As much as the term conjures the eighties, the yuppie has never quite faded into history. In 2000, David Brooks tried to refine the concept, coining the term BoBo to describe an allegedly more enlightened consumer who combined the self-interest of the eighties with the liberal idealism of an earlier era, using the Y-word to denote a less enlightened group. In the meantime, the yuppie family tree has thrown off another branch, the hipster. Hipsters believed they were the ultimate anti-yuppies. Unlike their forebears, they wanted to be known not by their job or ambition but by their self-conscious disregard for either. If anything, the cult of connoisseurship was even more exaggerated in this subgroup. Their code, enshrined in Robert Lanham’s hyperironic 2003 Hipster Handbook, was inherently elitist, defining itself in opposition to the mainstream. Hipster consumerism championed the notions of alternative and independent, rejecting the yuppie embrace of certain consumer brands in favor of their own. So it was vintage T-shirts rather than Turnbull & Asser dress shirts with spread collars, Pabst Blue Ribbon over Chardonnay. But ultimately, whether you love Starbucks or loathe it, a world in which we are defined by our choice of blue jeans and coffee beans owes more to Alex Keaton than to Abbie Hoffman.

And as if to prove that the hipster and the yuppie are brothers under the skin, borough-bred columnists like Denis Hamill and Jimmy Breslin still find the yuppie label useful for bashing a certain breed of interloping effete New Yorker, the kinds of people who may in fact identify themselves as hipsters.

There probably are a few Budweiser-drinking union members left out in Brooklyn and Queens who guffaw at the idea of anyone belonging to a gym or buying coffee at any place other than a deli, but generally speaking, yuppie culture has become the culture, if not in reality, then aspirationally. The pods have pretty much taken over the world. The ideal of connoisseurship, the worship of brand names and designer labels, the pursuit of physical perfection through exercise and surgery—do these sound like the quaint habits of an extinct clan?



I think he nailed it. Maybe this is truer in New York than in other places, but pretty much everyone in this country is a yuppie now, or at least shares a lot of those values.

Related posts from the archives: What is a Yuppie? and Hipsters and Money.

8 comments:

Middle Class Hick said...

I don't think I am even close to being a yuppie, nor anyone in my family. I reside near a major city (even though the mass media thinks it is hickville, it is the 11th largest city in the US within the city limits) and am between 25 and 45, but that is it. I don't have aprirations for glory, pestige, recoginition, fame, social status, power, money or combination of all the above. I sure as hell don't brunch on the weekends or workout after work (unless you count playing nerf guns with my teen son). I don't worship of brand names and designer labels, the pursuit of physical perfection through exercise and surgery. No one I would associate with acts like that. If they are that shallow - then they are not that fun to be around.

My personal opinion, of course that is why I am a middle class hick from the sticks, I don't give a rip about what people call sophistication. I have been and lived in over 30 countries, and seen what different cultures call society. What we really have are people that want to be a certain way, to be a certain way. Every society has norms, and they shift over time. Look at at ancient Rome, the ancient Greeks, they had lots of things that we consider morally apprehensible, and when people look back on us 100 years in the future, we will look like dumb morons from the un-enlightened age.

I say be happy and achieve your goals and let history be your judge.

Liz said...

Why they gotta hate on brunch? Brunch is awesome.

Really interesting article. I think it's true that the "yuppie ideal" has become the standard, at least aspirationally, as you said. Watch TV or a movie and everyone is working at some glamorous job (often a fashion magazine) and living in a house/apt with an "open floorplan" and stainless steel appliances in the kitchen. It comes across as normal, even if not many people live that way.

The whole backlash against wanting money feels very 80s to me as well - a vestige of the decade of greed. Of course it's lame to define yourself by how much you make or which brand of jeans you wear. But there's nothing wrong with wanting to have enough money to do as you please. Making a good living and being a good person are not mutually exclusive.

Middle Class Hick said...

I did not state anything about having brunch .. just that I don't do it often. It is not a REQUIREMENT for me to do. I have it once in a while. I prefer making pancakes and omelets at home on the cheap versus going out. I have 100 pounds of sausage and bacon in the freezer from last years sow still .. so I can have what I want on any weekend. Egg beaters and cheese are staples in my household. All the better when the parents are in town - mom loves to cook. They come back from the north during the winter and live with me in the "warm" states during the winter so they don't have to survive the winters on lake superior.

Gord said...

It's odd that for as long as I can remember we like to label each other; I guess it's a way of trying to make order of things. But when you get a closer look at the people behind the labels, you find they aren't really like that. They just look the part, probably because we want to be a part of a group......but we are always doomed to coming up short. I used to look like a hippie but was much closer to a capitalist pig. Hmmm, I'm dating myself.

I've never met anyone society would consider to be "normal" and I think normal is simply a statistical term. I try not to care what anyone thinks of me and make the priority of how I feel about myself number one. But I am human after all, and worry about the stupidest things sometimes....

YoungMoneyTalks said...

What a great post! I agree-- Yuppie Culture has essentially become mainstream culture. I sort of think the new yuppie for this decade would be the type of person described in "Stuff White People Like." Yes, they love brunch too. (And admittedly, so do I.)

Anonymous said...

Love this article. I laughed when I read about the urban hipsters. I've been called a yuppie (a label I could care less about either way) by urban hipsters poseurs who spend more on clothes and meals out than I do! I think everyone wants to aspire to be something, be it a yuppie, an urban hipster, Joe Six Pack, and it's human nature to distrust those unlike you.

Anonymous said...

Fun Post! I was looking forward to reading this yesterday, but had no time after working late, hitting the gym, and cooking a healthy meal of organic locally grown produce for my childless family... I almost laughed out loud at how my life would have looked to others thirty years ago.

Liz said...

Middle Class Hick: Sorry for any confusion, I wasn't referring to you but to the article.

As all the commenters here seem to agree, assigning labels and/or passing judgment on other people is a waste of time. I am continually amazed by how many people in this world (often with some sort of public platform) obsess over how other people live their lives.