The Eighties Club
The Politics and Pop Culture of the 1980s
9. Yuppie Culture

Copyright 2000     Jason Manning     All Rights Reserved
The cast of thirtysomething, a hit TV show at the heart of yuppie culture in the Eighties.

Were you a yuppie in the Eighties?  Were L.A. Law and thirtysomething two of your favorite television shows?  Did you prefer wine over beer, pasta over Big Macs, designer ice cream (or yogurt) over the supermarket brands?  Did you read the Wall Street Journal and USA Today more often than the local newspaper?  Did you own a Beemer (BMW) or a Mercedes -- or want to?  Did you wear Amani trousers or power suits, write with a Cross pen, carry a Gucci briefcase, and talk about the "bottom line?"  Were The Sharper Image and L.L. Bean two of your favorite mail-order catalogs?  Did you frequent stores like Banana Republic and drop by Starbuck's for a cafe latte?  Did you smile when you saw parquet floors, and turn up your nose at shag carpet?  If you answered yes to some or all of the above, made $40,000 or more a year in the 1980s, and were a baby boomer (born between 1946 and 1964), chances are you were a yuppie, even though you might not have admitted it.
First there came the hippies, politically and culturally rebellious participants in the counterculture of the Sixties.  And then there were the preppies, materialistic and upscale, obsessed with status, who believed the privileges they took for granted were due them thanks to an accident of birth.  Yuppies melded what they deemed the best of both worlds -- the materialism of the preppies absent the snobbery and the self-absorbed perfectionism of the hippie without the anti-establishment mindset.  The term "Yuppie" was first used in print by Chicago Tribune columnist Bob Greene in a March 1983 piece on Jerry Rubin, a hippie-turned-yuppie, and was bandied about extensively in the 1984 presidential campaign in which Colorado senator Gary Hart, a contender for the Democratic nomination, seemed tailor-made to appeal to the fiscally conservative but socially liberal yuppie voter.
According to Newsweek, 1984 was the "Year of the Yuppie" -- the young urban professional whose lifestyle and outlook made him/her a synecdoche of Reagan's America.  Yuppies were, according to leftist Fredric Jameson, "a new petit bourgeoisie [whose] cultural practices and values . . . have articulated a useful dominant ideological and cultural paradigm" for American society in the 1980s.  Yuppies were lambasted as excessively consumptive in their pursuit of the American Dream without much regard for those left behind.  The yuppie heyday was short-lived; critics gleefully described the stock market crash of October 1987 as the consequence of yuppie folly -- and the beginning of the yuppie's end.  On November 11, 1987, 20,000 attended a "Save the Yuppie" concert given (tongue in cheek) by U2 at Justin Herman Plaza in the heart of San Francisco's financial district.  After the crash, a popular joke was that the difference between a pigeon and a yuppie stockbroker was that the pigeon could still make a deposit on a new Mercedes.  "Yuppie" quickly became a derogatory term, but there can be little doubt that the yuppie phenomenon had a lasting cultural impact.
Considerable debate raged as to the number of genuine yuppies.  The Newsweek cover story estimated that there were 1.2 million, while American Demographics determined that about 5 percent of baby boomers (4.2 million) qualified.  Nearly three-fourths of yuppie households were headed by couples, and a yuppie sub-set called DINKS -- double-income, no-kids couples -- was identified.  Married or not, DINKS worked long hours at professional/managerial jobs, postponed having children for the sake of their careers, and had lots of discretionary income which they used in consuming conspicuously, like good yuppies did.  Yuppies often worked so hard that they had little time for sex; more than one DINK couple admitted that they had an answering machine at home just so they could talk to each other at least once a day.
Obsession with career was a hallmark of yuppie culture.  As The Yuppie Handbook (1984) pointed out, work had to be personally meaningful, emotionally satisfying, and a vehicle for self-expression. Since staying busy was de rigueur for a yuppie, advertisers targeting them found the print media more effective than television -- a yuppie was likely to record China Beach or Moonlighting for later viewing and fast-forward through the commercials anyway.  Metropolitan Home and New Yorker magazines were authentic yuppie publications.  Meanwhile, upscale mail-order catalogs proliferated. Richard Thalheimer's San Francisco-based The Sharper Image earned a whopping $78 million in 1983 as the "ultimate toy store for yuppies."  From espresso-cappucino makers and the Corby trouser press to a bathtub hydrospa and a $5,000 tanning bed, the most popular yuppie items had to be useful as well as fun to own.  A definite yuppie decor developed -- postmodern art, tile bathrooms, wood floors, bare brick walls, pastel colors, glass bricks, potted plants and stainless steel Sub-Zero refrigerators were in vogue.  Yuppies led the way in gentrifying urban neighborhoods, turning warehouse lofts and run-down brownstones into valuable real estate.
The work of talented young writers like Jay McInerney, Bret Easton Ellis and Jill Eisenstadt created a yuppie literary explosion, McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City was a huge success in 1984 and became a hit movie starring Michael J. Fox, Phoebe Cates and Kiefer Sutherland.  With witty and fast-paced writing, McInerney subtly portrayed the downside of frenetic yuppie existence through a protagonist who resorts to "Bolivian marching powder" (cocaine) to help him keep up with a life in the fast lane.  Bret Easton Ellis explored the foibles of the "New Lost Generation" in his bestseller, Less Than Zero (1985), while Eisenstadt scored big with From Rockaway in 1987.  In Diary of a Yuppie (1986), Louis Auchincloss, though not one himself, explored yuppie morality.  Some critics sniped that yuppie fiction was too trendy and superficial.  While skeptics agreed that McInerney and other members of the literary "brat pack" were fresh and talented voices, they complained that these chroniclers of Eighties lifestyle fiction had very little to say of lasting worth.  Yet their work endures as a window into the yuppie phenomenon.
Yuppie consumers played a key role in the emergence of New Age music -- an alpha-state, impressionistic fusion of jazz, acoustic and classical styles.  It's leading purveyor, Windham Hill, grossed $25 million in 1985 sales, primarily to young, white professionals.  Pianist George Winston's December album remained on Billboard's Top 40 jazz chart for over three years.  Other highly successful New Age artists included Steve Halpern, Jerry Goodman, Vangelis and Kitaro. Though some dismissed New Age music as "yuppie Muzak," it proved to be both innovative and enduring.
It seemed that many yuppies suffered pangs of guilt for being so obsessed with status.  Some were ex-hippies, and the passage from hippie to yuppie was perfectly illustrated in the film The Big Chill, whose characters mourn their compromised values and missed opportunities for love and parenthood.  The reconstructed yuppie was represented by the lead character in the hit television series Northern Exposure, which premiered in 1990; Dr. Joel Fleischman reluctantly embraces the abundantly anti-materialist values held by the eccentric but happy residents of Cicely, Alaska.  As the decade came to a close, the term yuppie became synonymous with greed, self-absorption and a lack of social conscience, and no one would admit to being one.  But in hindsight yuppies weren't all bad.  As Hendrik Hertzberg, editor of the New Republic wrote, "The fact is that . . . yuppies have better taste than yesterday's well-off young adult Americans, are less ostentatious in their display of wealth, . . .  set a far better example of healthful living, and are more tolerant."  Here's the bottom line -- today many Americans still live the yuppie lifestyle, or wish they did.


PERCEPTIONS OF THE YUPPIE

A 1986 survey by Louis Harris and Associates found the following:

73% of Americans believed that yuppies were primarily intent on making more money; 81% of yuppies agreed that they were.

72% of the public believed that yuppies were more concerned with their own needs than with the needs of others; the same percentage of yuppies agreed.

70% of those surveyed thought yuppies bought flashy cars and clothes in order to set themselves apart from others; 81% of yuppies said this was so.



REFERENCES

The Economist, 20 December 1986

Newsweek, 10 December 1984, 31 December 1984, 26 September 1988

Time, 9 January 1984, 1 September 1986, 20 April 1987, 19 October 1987

"On the Edge"
Joe Kane, Esquire, February 1985

"The Short Happy Life of the American Yuppie"
Hendrik Hertzberg, Culture in the Age of Money
Nicolaus Mill, ed. (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1990)

Seeing Through the Eighties: Television and Reaganism
Jane Feuer (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995)

The Yuppie Handbook
Marissa Piesman and Marilee Hartley (New York: Pocket Books, 1984)