Yuppie-bashing

AS I finally managed to hail a cab, I was looking forward to a quiet ride to midtown Manhattan, a chance to collect my thoughts before my next interview. But it was not to be. As we eased through the traffic, I noticed the cabbie watching me in his rearview mirror. Finally, when he could no longer contain it, he burst out: ``I know what you are! You're one of those yuppies!'' It was the yuppies, he shouted, who were messing up America. They had life too easy, had never learned what it meant to have to work and struggle to survive.

``You're living in a bubble,'' he said, ``all that service-economy stuff, shuffling profits and playing with other folks' money; it isn't worth anything without the working people to back it up, and we're hurting.''

As I listened, it suddenly dawned on me what this was all about. I had just come out of an interview in the heart of New York's financial district and was dressed accordingly. So, of course, I looked like a yuppie: young, relatively well dressed, and on the move. Good gosh, I thought, he might have even mistaken me for an investment banker.

The trouble is that I am neither a banker nor a genuine yuppie. If we define that term in its most literal sense -- young, urban professional -- then I suppose I qualify. But yuppie has come to mean much more. One columnist has dubbed the yuppies the ``gods of conspicuous consumption,'' a fast-tracking elite who drive BMWs and gauge happiness by how closely their lives reflect the ideals set by premium beer commercials.

Of course, conspicuously consuming yuppies make up only a small fraction of the ``baby-boomers.'' Yuppies may cover more ground in their careers in a few years than their parents covered in decades, and live in ``starter homes'' resembling their parents' dream houses.

But many baby-boomers are heavily burdened with mortgage and education debt, and they face a demographic logjam that could well mean tight competition in the workplace throughout their careers.

I certainly fall far short of qualifying as a yuppie in the narrower sense. First of all, as a journalist I will probably never make enough money to qualify for a mortgage, much less an exclusive life style.

Secondly, I have always imagined yuppies to be the children of accountants and lawyers from the suburbs of Chicago and New York and places like that, and that wasn't my background.

I tried to explain this to the driver, but he was on a roll. He said he often talked to the brokers and bankers he picked up on Wall Street. Most of them didn't have enough common sense to close the window in the rain. They certainly couldn't run the economy. And they were so young!

``It's high time people with a little seasoning and street smarts took over where you college boys have failed,'' he concluded. I told him that he was probably right.

What I did not tell him was that I thought he was missing the fundamental issue. It is not the wealth and power of yuppies which is unattractive, quite the opposite.

Americans are fascinated by those qualities. How else can you explain the popularity of vacuous television shows such as ``Dynasty?''

What is unattractive about yuppies is the attitude that is often associated with them -- an attitude of blissful detachment from the problems of the world. The classic yuppie success story emphasizes ``making your age'' and taking control. It is a mentality that encourages people to have it all, when having only some is quite enough.

Yuppies live in a world where projecting an image can be as important as developing an idea. But this emphasis on style over substance is hardly unique to yuppies. Unfortunately, bravado and blather are the stuff of many -- from Army generals to Washington politicians.

As for their personal habits, today's young elite may have honed the skills of conspicuous consumption, but they hardly invented them. Anyone who doubts this need only visit the marble palaces of Newport, R.I., to see that self-indulgence has a long tradition in this country. Owning a condominium and an imported car, two hallmarks of yuppiedom, seem relatively conservative luxuries in the grand scheme of things.

What makes yuppies unique is their visibility. They are the cream of the demographic bulge known as the baby boom, and as such attract more than their share of attention from Madison Avenue. Television advertising batters us with images of attractive, successful-looking people enjoying the good life. But that's not unusual. Nobody buys a product because the disadvantaged are buying it; we buy it because those we hope to emulate are buying it. The fact that not everyone is striving to be a yuppie seems to have been lost in the advertising scramble.

Every generation has winners, people whose smiles are as bright as their futures. For my generation, these are the yuppies. The difference, perhaps, is that yuppies are making their way to the top quicker than any previous generation.

Aside from their youth, however, I don't think yuppies are much different from the successful of previous generations. They were always there, the hard-driving up-and-comers. It's just that they're coming faster. We've packaged them in a way that makes it much easier for newspaper columnists and taxicab drivers to criticize them. It also aids in attaching labels, such as self-centered and overly ambitious. What it has not done is help us understand one another better. Perhaps we should try that next.

Tim Aeppel is a member of the Monitor staff.

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