The other night in Los Angeles, I caught up with my old friend Jeremy, who’d just landed a big sales job with a wireless company. We’d decided to check out Clap Your Hands Say Yeah at the Henry Fonda Theater. As you get older, and adult responsibilities cake up your life like shower mold, preparing for the time-honored male-bonding ritual of seeing an indie band becomes a Byzantine task, so we were psyched. Before I flew out from New York, I’d figured that since I’d always lent Jeremy a couch to crash on in the past, when he was a struggling singer-songwriter, maybe I could save a few bucks and stay with him and his wife and kids near Laurel Canyon, and . . . well, wait. No, that wouldn’t do.
I opted for the Ritz-Carlton instead. But we would have some extra time for dinner, of course. And for a moment I thought about all the great L.A. dives that you associate with rock shows Dog, Señor Fish, Tommy’s World Famous Hamburgers that nostalgic impulse quickly morphed into Naaah, let’s go somewhere nicewhat’s the name of that amazing new sushi place near the Sunset Marquis? (It’s called Wa, and I highly recommend the tuna sashimi with truffles.)
Then there was the issue of clothing: Would my indie-rock T-shirt be appropriate at the sushi place, or would it come across as too downscale, in which case would I need to change in the car? Oh, and, my rental car looked a little putzy’t it make more sense to take Jeremy’s SUV, this being L.A. and all?
Okay! Rock and roll!
Had he seen me at that show, the younger version of myself one who saw the Clash at the Hollywood Palladium and once backpacked through Morocco and slept in an olive grove have uttered three words that were popular in the late eighties: Die, yuppie scum. And right he’d be. Twenty years after the heyday of that mockworthy monster of American affluence, I have become the enemy. Hi, my name is Jeff, and I am a yuppie. We're all yuppies now.
Of course, that term, yuppie, has fallen so out of favor that we’re not even supposed to use it anymore. We’re expected to come up with a neologism clever 21st-century inversion of the word. But we’re not going to do that, because we don’t need to: The yuppie of 1986 and the yuppie of 2006 are so similar as to be indistinguishable. A used copy of The Yuppie Handbook recently fell into my hands. The book was published in 1984 as a jokey piece of social anthropology, and it made a slew of observations about this new American species. The yuppie’s bizarre lifestyle preferences were intended to elicit populist guffaws. Here are some of the things, according to The Yuppie Handbook, that the budding yupster could not live without: gourmet coffee, a Burberry trench coat, expensive running shoes, a Cuisinart, a renovated kitchen with a double sink, smoked mozzarella from Dean & DeLuca, a housekeeper, a mortgage, a Coach bag, a Gucci briefcase, and a Rolex. Oh, har har har, that crazy yup!
The yuppie could be found working off stress with a shiatsu massage and a facial, learning as much as possible about fine wine, traveling around the world on vacation, exercising at a fancy health club, listening to Bessie Smith and Bob Marley and the Police on a tiny device attached to headphones, drinking bottled spring water, freshening up in a five-star-hotel-quality bathroom, typing away at a computer while sitting in an ergonomic chair, racking up gobs of debt on his credit card, and clincher tuna sashimi for lunch! The mere mention of tuna sashimi for lunch was apparently seen as the height of hilarity back in 1984. “A yuppie most nearly approaches sainthood,“ the book noted, “when he or she is able to accomplish more things in a single day than is humanly possible.“ (This was long before BlackBerries.)
All of which means that the archetypal yuppie of the eighties sounds precisely like, um, everyone you know. Trust me: There is not a single sentence in The Yuppie Handbook that could make you chuckle. By now, the entire manuscript comes across as nothing more than a rote annotation of urbane American life. “When people were denouncing yuppies, they had considerably lower incomes than yuppies, so the things yuppies spent their money on seemed frivolous and unnecessary from their vantage point,“ says Cornell University economist Robert H. Frank, author of Luxury Fever. “What most people fail to anticipate is that your sense of what you need and want is very elastic. When your income rises, your consumption standard gradually adapts.“
If anything, your average upwardly mobile young professional has so outstripped and outclassed the mid-eighties yuppie that if Gordon Gekko himself were to show up in polite society in 2006, he would look kind of provincial. (These days, no host worth his fleur de sel would serve brie at a cocktail party when there are hundreds of obscure cheeses on display at Trader Joe’s.) Compared with us, the eighties greedhead was practically restrained.
Officially speaking, the yuppie died on October 19, 1987. That day’s stock-market crash, and the subsequent recession, ushered in the indie/slacker/die-yuppie-scum sensibility that held sway in the American head space until 1994 or so. We gulped through another crash in 2000, amid the dot-com meltdown, but the yup is impervious to boom-and-bust cycles. He’s a shape-shifter. Just like Lucifer in the Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil,“ he finds ways to reenter the American psyche. Look at how he has carved out a place for himself in movies like Wall Street and Boiler Room, in books like American Psycho and Liar’s Poker and The Smartest Guys in the Room and Bobos in Paradise, in countless rap songs.
“The yuppie never went away,“ Frank says. “For a while, there was a sense that it might be better not to be too ostentatious about your consumption, instead of parking the expensive Porsche out front, you bought a house with a garage in the back. But people never lost their taste for quality things.“ By now, in fact, an argument could be made that the yuppie phenomenon is the most enduring and influential social movement of the past 50 years. The boomer media love to get all swoony over the Woodstock era, but how many real hippies do you know? The only remaining trace of hippie ideology can be found in supermarket aisles full of organic, farm-raised food—but don’t kid yourself: Those people creating a boom market for Whole Foods and organic baby food are yups, not hippies. Dead rebel artists like Burroughs and Kerouac were long ago turned into useful “bohemian“ brands, tailor-made for Gap ads, but nobody actually aspires to be a beatnik anymore. (At this point, beret might as well be French for dickhead.)
Instead, what we have is a vast and diverse spectrum of yuppiness: guppies, buppies, alt-yups, schlub-yups, dharma-yups, crypto-yups. Former edge-dwelling slackers might be discreet enough to make their consumption appear casual and offhand, but that doesn’t mean they’re consuming any less than their flashier neighbors. (Especially now, when the stock market finally seems to be yawning awake.) Comedian Mo Rocca recently went out with a bunch of friends, he says, “and somebody was saying that it’s so tacky to have a television in the living room. And a friend of mine went, Fuck that, I’ve got a TV in every single room! I love it. I love TV. I love eating in front of the TV, and the TV’s always on.’ And I thought, Oh, my god, it was so liberating to hear him say that.“
Even back in 1991, novelist Douglas Coupland, the man who introduced the term Generation X into the mainstream, was picking up on a generation’s natural vulnerability to comfort. “When you’re 27 or 28, your body starts emitting the Sheraton enzyme,“ he told People. “You can no longer sleep on people’s floors.“ By 37, the Sheraton enzyme mutates into the Four Seasons endorphin. People, like neighborhoods, have a tendency to gentrify. On my recent trip to the West Coast, I went back to the section of Pasadena that used to be my beloved slacker drag strip in the eighties scrungy wonderland of pawn shops, Bukowski-approved dives, vintage clothing shops, used bookstores, greasy taco trucks. As I poked around in this, the fall of 2006, it came as a shock to see that every last drop of that suburban boho-scape was now gone, replaced by upscale trattorias and tapas bars, boutiques and Pottery Barn and Tiffany’s.
A shock, but only a minor one. While the yuppies were colonizing my favorite neighborhood, apparently they were doing the exact same thing to my brain.