From Joke to Zeitgeist: How Yuppies Created America as We Know It
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From Joke to Zeitgeist: How Yuppies Created America as We Know It

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From Joke to Zeitgeist: How Yuppies Created America as We Know It

Tom McGrath spent more than a decade as editor of Philadelphia magazine, as well as chief content officer of Metro Corp., the parent company of Philadelphia and Boston. During his tenure, the magazines won more than fifty awards for editorial excellence. He was named Writer of the Year at the National City and Regional Magazine Awards in 2022.

Below, Tom shares five key insights from his new book, Triumph of the Yuppies: America, the Eighties, and the Creation of an Unequal Nation. Listen to the audio version—read by Tom himself—in the Next Big Idea App.

Triumph of the Yuppies Tom McGrath Next Big Idea Club

1. Yuppies were superficial, but they weren’t trivial.

If you’re old enough to remember the 80s (or even if you’ve only heard about Yuppies decades after), the term conjures an image of sharply dressed young professionals obsessed with money and status. That’s not wrong. Yuppies were materialistic and valued things that sent a message about who they were—whether it was a Cuisinart in the kitchen, a BMW in the garage, or the latest gadget from Sharper Image. Yuppies preferred the sophistication of city living to the blandness of suburbia, and beginning in the late ’70s, they began flooding into previously working-class neighborhoods in cities like New York, Boston, San Francisco, Washington D.C., and Chicago. They were the original foodies, fueling the latest trendy restaurants. They were fitness fanatics, turning Jane Fonda into a cultural icon.

But in addition to those superficial qualities, Yuppies mattered because of something deeper they represented: a divide growing within the Baby Boom generation and in America more broadly along educational and economic lines.

That split first showed itself in the late ’60s with the rise of the counterculture. However, the young people participating in the counterculture—college students—were very much a minority within their own generation. More than half of Baby Boomers didn’t go to college, and while campuses were erupting, those high school-educated Boomers were either fighting the war in Vietnam or simply trying to find jobs in working-class professions. The divide in economic status and cultural sensibilities would only grow as the years passed.

2. The ’80s happened because of the ’70s.

The people we would call Yuppies first began emerging as a distinct group in the late 1970s, and their existence was a byproduct of two large cultural forces. One was the great expectations of the Boomer generation. The Boomers were raised in the roaring post-World War II economy and were told practically from the moment they were born that the world was theirs for the taking. They could do, be, and dream whatever they wanted.

It was a lovely promise. Unfortunately, by the mid-’70s, it collided head-on with America’s suddenly sputtering economy. Unemployment was high. Inflation was higher. Productivity was declining. The result: success started to be seen (not incorrectly) as a zero-sum game. In the booming post-war years, incomes in America had grown equally in every economic cohort: top, middle, and bottom. All boats were rising. In the emerging economy, it was clear that only the best-credentialed, most focused, most driven people would thrive.

“While they might have preached peace and love in the ’60s and early ’70s, now they made themselves comfortable with some of the realities of capitalism.”

And so even as one group of Baby Boomers (those who didn’t go past high school) saw their prospects dim, another group (those who went to college, some of whom had been part of the counterculture) doubled down on achievement. Many went to graduate school; the number of MBA degrees conferred annually more than doubled between 1970 and 1980. While they might have preached peace and love in the ’60s and early ’70s, now they made themselves comfortable with some of the realities of capitalism. They even began incorporating business-speak—the bottom line, pencil you in, interface— into their everyday language.

But they weren’t alone in changing. In reaction to the malaise of the ’70s, the culture was shifting. Money was becoming cool. The Official Preppy Handbook became a bestseller, satirizing and celebrating people with a particular kind of old money. Meanwhile, shows like Dallas, and later Dynasty, showcased new money.

On Wall Street and in corporate America, a more vigorous, harsher form of capitalism was embraced, prioritizing stockholders over stakeholders, including employees and the broader community. This would ultimately lead to the elimination or off-shoring of millions of good-paying manufacturing jobs and only deepened the country’s educational and economic divide.

3. How Yuppies got famous and changed politics for 40 years.

The word “Yuppie” first appeared in print in 1980, but it wasn’t until four years later that Yuppies became a cultural phenomenon. Part of what prompted it was the publication that January of a tongue-in-cheek book called The Yuppie Handbook: a mock how-to guide that broke down the traits, attitudes, and behaviors of this high-achieving, success-oriented new tribe. It sold well, and suddenly, the word Yuppie was injected into the cultural mainstream.

Even more influential when it came to elevating Yuppies was the dark horse presidential candidacy that year of Democrat Gary Hart. Hart (only in his 40s) shocked the political establishment by topping frontrunner Walter Mondale in the New Hampshire primary. Over the next couple of months, the two men battled for the nomination. Mondale was a classic New Deal Democrat who believed in labor unions and trade protectionism. While Hart was liberal on social issues, he was more conservative on economic ones, believing that America needed to move away from manufacturing to a tech-based economy. Hart’s biggest supporters were the college-educated young urban professionals—Yuppies—that everyone was talking about. It was a moment that marked Yuppies as influential. They were a new power base in America.

Mondale ultimately won the battle for the Democratic nomination, but he arguably lost the broader war for the soul of the party. After Mondale was crushed by Ronald Reagan in that fall’s general election, Democrats gradually began moving away from their working-class base and the policies that best served those people, reinventing itself in the image of Yuppies. In 1990, one in four Democrats had a college degree. Today, about half do. Meanwhile, the percentage of college-educated voters among Republicans has stayed the same for 40 years, at about 30 percent.

4. Yuppies changed cities and the economy.

By the mid-’80s, a backlash had developed against Yuppies. Everyday Americans were rolling their eyes at Yuppie self-absorption and Yuppie pretension. The word became a pejorative. Yuppie jokes started making the rounds: How many Yuppies does it take to screw in a light bulb? Two. One to call the electrician, the other to open the Beaujolais.

Yet, the Yuppies continued to have outsized sway. They were perceived to be the best and brightest of a generation. More importantly, they had economic clout, so many of the trends they embraced became the norm.

“They were perceived to be the best and brightest of a generation.”

By the mid-’80s, the working-class neighborhoods in cities like New York and Chicago that young professionals were settling down in were rapidly gentrifying, forcing out longtime residents and businesses. This set the stage for the more affluent city centers we know today.

Meanwhile, companies began to pivot to meet the tastes of a new class of upscale consumers. Luxury auto brands like Lexus and Acura were born; food brands like Starbucks and Whole Foods—each of which had their roots in the counterculture of the late ’60s and early ’70s—began to grow, appealing to the sensibilities of a new, more sophisticated consumer. Yuppies were a minority, but their tastes set the tone for everyone.

5. The ’80s aren’t over.

Yuppieness as a phenomenon finally came to end in the aftermath of the 1987 stock market crash (which cost high-flying Yuppies on Wall Street a bundle). A new wave of Yuppie jokes started: What’s the difference between a Yuppie and a pigeon? A pigeon can still make a deposit on a Porsche.

More importantly, after half a dozen years of big deals, big profits, and big attitudes, cultural observers predicted that the country’s financial reckoning would bring a moral and financial reckoning as well, and Yuppies—in all their red-suspendered smugness and I’ve-got-mine-good-luck-getting-yours self-absorption—would go the way of flappers, hippies, and other ghosts of 20th century past.

Did they? Well, the word certainly faded from the culture (as did the suspenders, thank goodness). But within a few years, it was clear that no new era had commenced; no new ethos had taken hold. On the contrary, in its push to revive itself, in its zeal to recapture the dominance and prosperity of the postwar era, in elevating self‐interest over any sense of the common good, the country had created a new economic and social order that wouldn’t easily be undone.

On Wall Street, it took fewer than 20 months for the Dow to recover what it had lost in the stock market crash, and from there, it went on a 10-year bull run. By 2020, it was worth six times what it was in 1987. Meanwhile, hedge fund managers and private equity titans regularly make in the tens, if not hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

In corporate America, the needs of shareholders (not the broader constituency of stakeholders) continue to trump everything else. Stock price and quarter‐to‐quarter earnings drive most decisions. Profits increased nearly 1,000 percent between 1990 and 2020. As for the economic and educational divide that Yuppies personified, well, it’s deeper than ever. According to the Economic Policy Institute, between 1979 and 2021, wages for the top 1 percent of earners in America grew 200 percent, while wages for the bottom 90 percent grew just 29 percent.

All of this has produced a backlash. On the left, you can see it in movements like Occupy Wall Street and the popularity of politicians like Bernie Sanders. On the right, its most obvious incarnation is in Donald Trump and the MAGA movement. At its root is a lack of trust among tens of millions of people who’ve felt left behind over the last several decades because, in some ways, they have been. Over the last 40 years, a small subset of Americans—call them the 1 percent, call them the elites, call them Yuppies—have created a country that works well for themselves but not so well for anyone else.

To listen to the audio version read by author Tom McGrath, download the Next Big Idea App today:

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