views updated


Following the social upheaval and counterculture ideals that received popular attention the 1970s, the 1980s ushered in a backlash, at least in the middle and upper middle classes. A number of former college students, protesters, and hippies who came from these classes left the counterculture behind and took high-paying white collar jobs. Because many of them postponed marriage and children, they found themselves with large disposable incomes and few responsibilities. These Young Urban Professionals were soon dubbed "yuppies" by the press.

Tired of the moral and political seriousness of the activist 1960s and 1970s, the yuppies began to spend their money on themselves, often going into debt to purchase high-priced status symbols and expensive adult playthings. Rolex watches, designer fashions, trendy gourmet foods, and BMW cars came to represent the self-indulgent lifestyle of the wealthy young professionals. Snob appeal became the measuring stick for purchases. Drug use was associated with yuppies, but not the bohemian marijuana of the hippies. Rather, it was cocaine, the expensive drug of the jet set. "Whoever dies with the most toys, wins," and "Who says you can't have it all?" became the catch phrases of the day.

The yuppies soon came to symbolize everything the media found to criticize in the 1980s. Calling the 1980s the "me" generation and the "greed decade," media pundits lambasted the yuppie swingers as they had their hippie counterparts. Books like Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City and Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities chronicled the self-aggrandizing decadence of the yuppie life. In reality, the economic boom of the early 1980s contributed to rising consumption throughout middle class America, and the well-educated young elite were merely particularly well-positioned to take advantage of it. They had been raised with a sense of their own importance and entitlement, and they had been given jobs with salaries that reinforced that sense. Their lifestyle values were the opposite of those of their parents, the conservative children of the Great Depression. Professional life seemed merely like a step beyond college parties, and the fun was less limited. Profitably employed married couples without children were given the name dinks (double income no kids) by the press, which showed a liking for catchy acronyms. Dinks had unprecedented disposable income, and in an increasingly consumer society, it was easy to spend.

Those young professionals who did have families tried as best they could to fit them into the yuppie status symbol mold. Two career households necessitated nannies and housekeepers. Young couples began to search for the "right" schools while their children were still babies. Along with the expensive party lifestyle came pressure to keep up appearances and to keep making money. As Stan Schultz, a cultural historian at the University of Wisconsin described it, "We are terribly busy souls, doing things that no one else can do." Internal conflicts began to emerge, as the yuppies' liberal ideologies started to conflict with their economic conservatism. The 1980s was the Reagan era in United States politics, and new advantages were being doled out to the rich and the corporations at the expense of social services. The yuppies found themselves on an uncomfortable side of this dichotomy. Jerry Rubin, once a leader of the famous radical group the Yippies, was one of those who traded in his revolutionary politics for economic security—"Money in my pockets mellowed out my radicalism," he said.

Of course, frenzied spending has its price, and the yuppies soon found themselves in deep debt. As long as high-salaried jobs were available, the debt was not a problem, but toward the late 1980s, the economic boom began to end. In 1987, the stock market crashed, and its effects were felt in every societal stratum. Many of the previously secure young professional found themselves "downsized," laid off from jobs or forced to take great cuts in salary. So many defaulted on credit card payments that bankers coined the term "yuppie bill syndrome" to describe them. New "yuppie pawnshops" sprang up, not the sad dark hock shops of the inner-city, but upscale shops with bright lighting in middle class shopping areas, so that the yuppies could cash in some of their costly toys to help cover more necessary expenses. "Downscale chic" was the term used to describe the return to simpler consumption—jeans and T-shirts instead of designer clothes.

Receiving less attention in the media than the maligned yuppies were the working class and poor, whose circumstances were less improved by the 1980s boom. Working class people, too, often had two income families which did not create a pool of disposable income, but instead barely covered their bills. They had little sympathy with the overextended yuppies, who in fact became a convenient scapegoat, exemplifying as they did the waste and irresponsibility of the upper classes.

Just as the yuppies themselves had been part of a backlash, they caused their own backlash. Redefining the word yuppie to mean "young unhappy professionals," some young professionals began to look for a new way of life. Some were dubbed domo's for "downwardly mobile professionals," and dropped out of the fast-paced life of the urban professional, choosing a simpler life, perhaps moving to the country. One exodus took many former yuppies to Montana, seeking a bucolic freedom from stress in the mountains. Other yuppies did not drop out, but rather changed their focus to making money by doing work they could believe in, such as environmental protection work or fighting cancer. The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron and Getting a Life by Jacqueline Blix describe the joys of trading the consumer rat race for a more fulfilling life by making a dramatic lifestyle change.

The term "yuppie" has been widely used—many say overused—by the media to describe a certain privileged segment of the baby boom generation at a particular time in their lives. As the upper middle class professionals of that generation began to reach middle age, the press began to announce the "death of the yuppie." While conspicuous consumption will never go entirely out of style for the rich, the set of circumstances that created the yuppie mindset is unlikely to recur. Rebelling both against the economic stodginess of their parents' generation and the unwelcome demands of their own youthful ideals, the young professional elite that the press called "yuppies" went on a wild spending spree. When the bills came due, their lives and values changed. In the 1980s, they were sneered at; no one admitted to being a yuppie. They were other people who spent and consumed too much and too richly. In the early 1990s, Michael Thomas of the New York Observer said, "I think that's one of the big stories now—denial of the 1980s."

—Tina Gianoulis

Further Reading:

Adler, Jerry. "The Rise of the Overclass." Newsweek. Vol. 126, No.5, July 31, 1995, 32.

Shapiro, Walter. "The Birth and—Maybe—Death of Yuppiedom:After 22,000 Articles, is This Truly the End?" Time. Vol. 137, No. 14, April 8, 1991, 65.

Yuppies and Baby Boomers: A Benchmark Study from Market Facts, Inc. Chicago, Market Facts, 1985.