MEMO TO: Style Editors
FROM: Richard Leiby, Cultural "Trends" Reporter
Turns out you were right. This is the perfect time to write a story about yuppies.
This is the 10th anniversary of "The Year of the Yuppie," first proclaimed by the New York Times (March 25, 1984) and certified by Newsweek magazine (Dec. 31, 1984).
So we are smack dab in the middle of the anniversary time frame, the apex of America's curiosity about The Yuppie, 10 Years Later. This being the summer of humongously covered anniversaries (D-Day, the moon landing, Woodstock), it's important that we're the first to report this one.
I already have the "what-it-all-means" paragraph:
"Like other generation-shaping events, the advent of the yuppie signaled the arrival of an important cultural and political force. In untold numbers, these Brie-eating, BMW-driving, upwardly mobile Young Urban Professionals changed the way we all lived, forever." (You might want to punch it up a bit.)
I can shape this story one of two ways:
Yuppies are back.
Yuppies are dead.
That may sound contradictory, but trust me -- I have good sources on this. Yuppies can be whatever we want them to be. We invented them!
"The yuppie was a fiction to begin with," Brad Edmondson, a leading expert, told me. "The main place yuppies existed was in newsrooms. It was a classic story of editors looking at their friends and creating a social trend. It had nothing to do with what was going on in the United States. It had to do with magazines and newspapers needing to fill feature space."
Edmondson should know: He's editor in chief of American Demographics magazine. But even though he's a journalist, he relies on actual facts and numbers to fill pages.
In the mid-1980s, he says, maybe 1.5 percent of American adults were yuppies -- that is, under age 45, residing in an urban area, and affluent (earning more than $40,000). "Less than one in 50 adults met that criteria. If you had to define them as professional, it was even less."
Yet this tiny cadre of young, influential, striving types gained enormous clout, especially during Gary Hart's campaign for president, as political reporters went to work interviewing their friends and finding amazing support for Hart among young, influential, striving professionals like themselves. Suddenly, stories exploded everywhere about all the idealistic baby boomers who were now chucking their hippie ideals for fat paychecks and food processors.
"What Yuppies have discovered is nothing less than a new plane of consciousness, a state of Transcendental Acquisition," opined Newsweek in its cover story, heavy on quotes from people who worked in the media. "Yuppies are the first native American gourmet class since the robber barons ate themselves to death."
Soon, America's consumer landscape was overrun by hordes demanding kiwi fruit cheesecake, American Express Gold Cards, Jay McInerney books, Corona beer and cocaine. Many were pretenders or trend-surfers (what we would now professionally term "wannabes"). They were willing to sample but not fully live the yuppie dream, because they couldn't afford to.
Says Edmondson: "This media fiction really resonated with people who wanted to be acquisitive and affluent. But nobody really had the money to live the way yuppies lived."
Except, perhaps, people in the high-powered Washington and New York media-political-legal circles, the same ones who now complain that $150,000 a year is barely enough to make the mortgage and pay the nanny, let alone private school tuitions. You know those types.
Anyway, at the risk of having facts ruin a potentially good feature piece, I called both the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics to pursue the "Whither the Yuppie?" concept.
Government officials denied ever applying the label to any segment of the population. "It was not created by us," said Wallace Fraser, a statistician in the Poverty and Wealth Statistics Branch of the Census Bureau. "Primarily it was created by people in the press or the private sector."
Turns out the most affluent people in 1984 were ... older people. People aged 55 to 64, whose household net worth was a median $73,664. But nobody wanted to put golden-agers on the covers of magazines, sipping chardonnay in their remodeled warehouse lofts, fondling their Akita pups.
It also turns out that younger workers saw their earnings flatten or fall during the '80s. And they never made that much dough anyway. In 1984, the median income of a full-time male employee aged 25 to 34 was a mere $21,607 per annum ($15,896 for women). Try leasing a Beamer and keeping a stock of Perrier on that budget.
Today's would-be affluent young people have it even worse. The median income for men and women aged 25 to 34 is actually lower than it was 10 years ago. Apparently that's why we stopped calling them yuppies and gave them more somber, despairing labels, like "20-nothings" and "Generation Xers."
For a while, I thought the nonexistence of the yuppie would be a good peg for a piece on the Death of the Yuppie. But then I did further intensive, longitudinal, statistical research, which, in this case, involved calling our library and asking for a Nexus search on the frequency of the word "yuppie" in major newspapers.
My premise was that we could finally bury the yuppie if there was declining evidence of him/her in the databases of The Washington Post, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune during the past nine years. (Note on methodology: I chose those databases because they were the easiest to search.)
1985: Yuppie mentioned 790 times.
1988: Yuppie mentioned 776 times.
1990: Yuppie mentioned 882 times. (Note: Numbers weighted by "End of '80s" pieces.)
1993: Yuppie mentioned 564 times.
1994 to date: Yuppie mentioned 332 times -- including three times in a Style piece on Wednesday, which termed the Black Dog T-shirts sold on Martha's Vineyard a "budding yuppie icon."
My research left me confused. Yes, important publications were writing less about yuppies, but if something is "budding," it certainly can't be part of a trend that's also dying on the vine. (And the word "yuppie" obviously wasn't dying on the Vineyard -- although, of course, this had nothing to do with the mass of reporters on the island.)
In most quarters, the yuppie has been falling from favor -- ever since 1987, the year the proto-anti-yuppie movie "Wall Street" was released, and the word became a synonynm for "scum-sucking little greedhead." In late 1989, cartoonist Matt Groening placed "yuppie" and "yupster" on his "Forbidden Words of the 1990s" list.
But something even more powerful was warring against the yuppie: Many reporters began to focus on the new baby boom, the return of couples to the suburban nest, the mini-van and coupon-clipping social trend stories of the '90s.
Then it struck me like that first gulp of a foamy Sam Adams Honey Porter after a round of golf:
The RETURN of the Yuppies! We could do that piece, with modifications.
We can't call them yuppies anymore, because they are no longer, technically, young. And they don't have enough money to afford those overpriced, rehabbed urban spaces (only gays and otherwise childless couples can afford homes downtown these days).
So let's call them ... Sappies. Suburban Aging Professionals.
I look around my neighborhood and the newsroom and see them. They have turned away from the material values of the '80s and invested their money and time in their children. They may shop at Fresh Fields and drink Starbucks coffee -- vestigial yuppie behaviors -- but they've become more spiritual, less jogging-oriented, more centered on what really matters.
I've even heard that some sappie women are quitting their jobs to stay at home with their children! Barron's recently did a majorly huge 4,359-word cover story on these new June Cleavers. It said the boom in mortgage refinancing has magically reestablished the one-paycheck couple.
Let's jump right on that trend. I called an economist at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Howard Hayghe, and he said there's absolutely no evidence that women are leaving the work force, but listen: When I walked my kid to the corner to catch the school bus this week, I met two women who are stay-at-home moms. One of them is married to a newspaper reporter -- who happens to be on the Vineyard, covering President Clinton. What more evidence of a trend do you need?