Chun: Am I a Yuppie?

Are goat yoga, microbrews and prosperity signs of yuppieism?

by Steven Chun | 5/18/17 12:30am

“The causes of death were family, finances and fatigue. The tasteful tombstone is set amid the soothing green of a field of Perrier bottles,” wrote Time magazine in an “obituary” of the yuppie. The year of death: 1991.

The yuppie reigned supreme in the relative boom of the ’80s. Though thoroughly lambasted, the organic, hand-crafted, off-white-sweater-around-the-neck consumerism was nonetheless a powerful movement. At its heart was the fresh college graduate employed in a flourishing industry — banking or real-estate. They had money in hand, a taste for the nouveau and countless brands chasing after their newfound wealth. It was a self-propagating, materialistic brouhaha. And in every way, it’s back.

I’m worried I’m one of them.

The realization came as soon as the words, “Wanna try that new sushi-rito place?” tumbled from my mouth, directed at my fellow interns at the midsize Washington, D.C. firm I was working at. It was a damning set of circumstances. Slowly, the things I had taken for granted as quirky pleasures — nice coffee, Wes Anderson movies, foods that pair well with sriracha aioli — revealed themselves as the 2017 interpretations of the Hunan restaurants and pinstriped Italian suits with yellow power ties from the ’80s. They’re gratifying and socially conspicuous forms of consumption. Now, instead of comparing our off-white business cards à la “American Psycho,” we simply scroll through an Instagram feed filled with fast fashion and crepe shops.

I’ve seen many a recent college graduate follow the same narrative arc as the yuppies of the ’80s. They’re attracted to prestigious positions, now largely in consulting and technology, and gravitate toward urban centers such as Boston and San Francisco. The current trends follow the same formulas — any combination of goats, beer, beards, yoga, essential oils, mobile design or cold brew.

This narrative is not true of all college students — in most cases, Yuppieism translates to the enjoyment of extreme privilege, though it can also define goals for social mobility. However, in the Ivy League, where there are more students from the top 1 percent of the income scale than from the bottom 60 percent at Dartmouth, Princeton University, Yale University, the University of Pennsylvania and Brown University, it’s a story that’s told quite often. To be clear, these critiques of consumerism, self-gratification and frivolity have always been around. But the parallels to yuppieism are less often brought up.

The other side of the bitcoin is that I earnestly enjoy these pursuits — no matter how absurd, privileged or indulgent they may seem. Is it really so wrong if I love a good late-night Korean taco place? How do I reconcile a lifestyle so formulaic with a desire for purpose and originality? Is it problematic that the yuppie seems to be back on the rise?

The answer lies not in what yuppieism has but in what it professes to lack: struggle. A perfectly filtered photo of sunrise yoga on a beach, açaí bowl in hand, projects a calculated carefreeness. In her materialism, the yuppie seeks to have it all, to want for naught. Perhaps this is why yuppieism’s rise seems to correlate with economic prosperity: the ’80s growth compared to the ’70s and today’s economic recovery post-financial crisis. In good times, people can afford to worry less.

I contend, however, that this focus on minimizing struggle ransacked the yuppie’s daily life of a vital motivating force. Struggle is generally good for life. Trees grow frail with shallow roots in the absence of strong winds. Yuppies were very much similar. Devoid of purposeful struggle, they instead turned luxury into their struggle, and keeping up with the Joneses became their primary motivator.

So we turn back to my own existential anguish over my love of pour over coffee, medium roast and outdoor seating lit by fairy lights. Can I enjoy these frivolous, pretentious things without falling prey to yuppieism? I hope so, if I find a worthwhile struggle. The key difference between a yuppie and someone who simply gets excited about kimchi poutine is whether the pursuit of material goods and social status is their main drive, or if they’re engaged in a worthwhile pursuit and just happen to enjoy dubious fusion cuisine.

It’s too early to know if I or my fellow students are or will become yuppies. The so-named Greatest Generation had their struggles thrust upon them: the Great Depression and World War II. Some of the baby boomers, lost in their own prosperity, fell victim to yuppieism. Only time will tell if my cohort of college graduates will face a similar fate or find purpose in service to greater goods.