The term “yuppie” now feels so dated that it occasionally seems an entire social class has vanished. If the suit-wearing Patrick Batemans of the 1980s no longer embody affluence, what has come to replace them? “Hipster” reigned, briefly, as the label of choice for certain irritating would-be members of the bourgeoisie. But while hipsters were, like the yuppies before them, young and urban-dwelling, they weren’t exactly professional. Often rumored to be living off their trust funds, they spent their time as layabout musicians or bike messengers, milling in coffee shops and craft cocktail bars. Yuppies, on the other hand, were seasoned careerists who owned yachts and luxury SUVs and talked in public about their stock portfolios. Yuppiedom described a specific oily demeanor and pattern of consumption as much as it implied affluence.
The waning of the yuppie’s particular brand of ostentatious upward mobility, and the rise of its aesthetically scruffier hipster cousin’s, demonstrate the ongoing erosion of what Barbara and John Ehrenreich have called the “professional-managerial class.” The Ehrenreichs coined the term in 1977 to refer to the constellation of college-educated, white-collar, and creative workers (doctors, lawyers, journalists, artists, academics, and so forth) that hovered somewhere between the ruling class and the traditional working class. More than 30 years later, in their 2013 essay “Death of a Yuppie Dream,” the Ehrenreichs reported that the once-ascendant PMC was on its last legs, fractured by decades of technological advances, job outsourcing, and attacks on labor. Increasingly, its members have either peeled off to join a tier of exorbitantly compensated CEOs and supermanagers or suffered the collapse of their chosen professions, from the decline of newspaper journalism to the elimination of tenured academic jobs.
In this bleak new landscape, strivers haven’t disappeared—they have simply reoriented themselves around a new set of values that bolster their class position in less noticeable ways. In his new book, The Complacent Class, the economist Tyler Cowen argues that the affluent have actually doubled down on stubborn self-satisfaction—a complacency that he sees as symptomatic of a wider malaise gripping the country. By contrast, Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, a scholar of public policy, maintains that today’s PMC is no less ambitious than the yuppies of yore, but that in an age of deepening inequality and precarity they are less openly hedonistic. Her book The Sum of Small Things offers a rich anthropological portrait of the “aspirational class”—a type of neo-yuppie that defines itself through understated modes of consumption and an emphasis on the accrual of cultural capital.
This new elite is typified by the brownstone-dweller traipsing through Whole Foods with a yoga mat peeping from the top of her NPR tote; the new Prospect Heights mother who stops in at the lactation consultant before her Y7 class; the tech startup employee with the neatly trimmed beard and Everlane button-down who announces on Facebook that he’s “bumping the new Kendrick.” They buy green cleaning products, ethically made clothes, and small-batch everything. They aspire, says Currid-Halkett, “to be their version of better humans in all aspects of their lives.”
On its face, this approach to conscientious living may look like a rejection of the uninhibited greed associated with the ’80s. But the new aspirational class shares more with its predecessors than it wants to admit. As populist surges in the United States and Europe make clear, rising economic inequality has made it more critical than ever to rethink and uproot the status quo. Yet, as Cowen and Currid-Halkett both find, for all the new elite’s well-intentioned consumption and subsequent self-assurance, they have no intention whatsoever of letting go of their status.
Read more at The New Republic.