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The New Yuppies

How the aspirational class expresses its status in an age of inequality.

Illustration by Dola Sun

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.

According to Currid-Halkett, the aspirational class isn’t limited to billionaires. Rather, it includes people of varying income levels who share a belief in meritocracy and, consequently, desire to express their acquisition of knowledge. It encompasses both the well-off partner in the law firm and the liberal arts school graduate working as an unpaid publishing intern, so long as both know to consume the same organic farmers market berries, discuss the latest Rachel Maddow segment, and quote lines from the musical Hamilton. Exact cultural references may vary: In her book, Currid-Halkett names Serial as the aspirational class’s go-to podcast, while today we might easily swap it for S-Town. The point is that members of the aspirational class trade in the semi-secret handshake of knowing the “right” things to consume at a given time.

THE SUM OF SMALL THINGS by Elizabeth Currid-Halkett
Princeton University Press, 272 pp., $29.95

While consumption has always served as a way to display one’s status, the style of consumption favored by the rich has changed significantly. On the eve of the twentieth century, the social critic Thorstein Veblen published his famous indictment of the Gilded Age’s idle rich, whom he called the “leisure class.” As owners of the means of production, they did not need to work for a living and displayed their high status through the conspicuous consumption of brazenly nonfunctional luxury goods. The apparent uselessness of these purchases signaled their owners’ extravagant indolence. Women of the leisure class wore constricting corsets that did not permit a great deal of movement, let alone strenuous labor; their male counterparts often carried gratuitous canes that suggested a physical inability to work.

Today, mass production and an abundance of cheap knockoffs have rendered conspicuous consumption unremarkable at best and gauche at worst. If criticisms of conspicuous consumption were once rooted in anti-materialism or antipathy toward the rich, today they are more likely to carry undercurrents of sexism and racism. We have a clear idea, for example, of who is being maligned when social critics remark upon the tastelessness of seven-inch Louboutin platforms, or expensive rims on Cadillacs. Consumption habits are also invoked to upbraid the poor for their bad budgeting, as when Representative Jason Chaffetz recently suggested that the uninsured would be able to buy health care if they didn’t blow their earnings on “that new iPhone.”

Now that conspicuous consumption has lost its prestige, today’s elites express their status through inconspicuous consumption. Their understated expenditures signal that they are knowledgeable and moral—most often to other members of the same class. “Rich oligarchs and the middle class can both acquire ‘stuff,’ ” notes Currid-Halkett,

but, for the aspirational class, it is members’ eagerness to acquire knowledge and to use this information to form socially and environmentally conscious values that sets them apart from everyone else—which is why a $2 heirloom tomato purchased from a farmers market is so symbolically weighty of aspirational class consumption and a white Range Rover is not.

Even forms of inconspicuous consumption undertaken in one’s ostensible downtime (attending a SoulCycle class or watching Stranger Things) can increase one’s cultural capital. “How else can an individual seem informed (and intellectually productive) at a dinner party if he’s not spending free time doing things that make him seem smart and culturally aware?” asks Currid-Halkett.

While a desire to buy organic root vegetables might seem innocuous enough, there is a disquieting side to inconspicuous consumption. Aspirational-class parents reproduce their class position for their children in ways that are even less visible, but far more significant and expensive, than dressing them in artisan-made organic cotton tees. They buy their kids boutique health care, take them on enriching trips to the Galápagos, and—most importantly—equip them with every educational advantage, from high-end preschools to SAT tutors to Ivy League tuition. In 2014, the top one percent spent 860 percent more than the national average on education.

For the aspirational class, the moral consumerism of buying the heirloom tomato provides a handy cover for the fact that their inconspicuous consumption reinforces their own economic privilege. As a result, members of this elite often come to view their station in life as ethical and deserved, unaware of the ways in which their spending patterns exacerbate class stratification. “At the very least,” Currid-Halkett points out, “they do not see themselves to blame.”

It is here that The Sum of Small Things dovetails with The Complacent Class, which sets out to indict a comparable mind-set of self-satisfaction. Among the causes of stagnation in America, Cowen contends, is the “Not in My Back Yard” attitude of affluent city-dwellers, who protest the construction of homeless shelters and methadone clinics in order to “preserve” their neighborhoods. Like Currid-Halkett’s aspirational class, to which most of them belong, NIMBYers cluster in densely populated metropolitan areas. “Quite frankly,” writes Cowen, “those are parts of America where people feel very good about themselves.”

Columbia University Press, 128 pp., $26.00

But according to Cowen, complacency extends far beyond the urban elite. The great problem of our time, he believes, is that we’ve abandoned the spirit of restlessness that was once a central tenet of the American experiment. He points to sluggish rates of productivity, the decline of geographical and socioeconomic mobility, and the increase in segregation by income, education, and ideology each as symptoms of our collective inertia. Cowen’s titular class is, in fact, composed of several different classes—each of which, he argues, suffers from its own specific form of complacency.

At the top there is the cosmopolitan, highly educated “privileged class,” who are mostly content with the status quo. Next are “those who dig in,” the middle-class families struggling on the precipice of downward mobility in the face of spiraling costs for education, housing, and health care. Finally, there are “those who get stuck,” the working poor and the underclass—Americans who have been incarcerated or chronically unemployed or otherwise mired in poverty with no clear way out. In other words, the complacent class covers almost everyone. Indeed, Cowen argues, it is our complacency that unites us: “Despite the divergences in their situations,” he writes, these groups share “a certain level of social and emotional and indeed ideological acceptance—a presupposition—of slower change.”

This is a stirring provocation, to be sure. Complacency, Cowen argues, explains almost everything about our national character: why we’ve become less likely to riot, why we aren’t as willing to move across the country for better work or lifestyle, why a majority now agrees that a chill-out, feel-good drug like marijuana ought to be legalized. Yet the very case studies he cites tend to contradict his own theory. Take Cowen’s chapter on why Americans no longer participate in large-scale riots. By his own account, it’s not that the down-and-out are less disposed to smash windows than they were in the 1960s. It’s that policing and crowd management techniques have evolved significantly over the past few decades. Authorities now employ a host of sophisticated approaches to prevent unrest from sparking, and to defuse it quickly when it does, requiring permits for protests, creating “free speech zones,” and increasing surveillance of would-be troublemakers under the Patriot Act. When riots do break out—like the Ferguson uprising over the police shooting of Michael Brown—local officials often bring in sympathetic authority figures (black clergy and police chiefs) and organizations like Amnesty International to broker peace and prevent disorder from spreading further.

Likewise, Cowen’s analysis of the reemergence of segregation reveals little about national complacency. As he shows, segregation by income and education in major metropolitan areas has increased dramatically over the past half-century, even at a time when few people would openly profess to want it. Historically, segregation has been the result of income inequality, sky-high rents, and discriminatory policies such as redlining. But according to Cowen, it is also the result of “the increasing ability of Americans of means to sort with people who are like themselves in terms of education and income and social class.” In other words, if complacency has helped fuel segregation, it’s the complacency of the elite few who wish to be surrounded by their own—rather than of the many who find themselves disadvantaged by segregated neighborhoods and schools.

In his efforts to portray a nation of sleepwalkers, Cowen overlooks or downplays recent research that demonstrates how a great deal of stagnation is actually imposed and maintained by a narrowing elite, who have gradually perfected their methods for discouraging those below from rising up. Cowen doesn’t spend much time, for instance, pondering why political engagement among the poor—those who would most benefit from an upheaval of the current order—is so dismal. But consider a study of voter turnout by political scientists Jan Leighley and Jonathan Nagler, which found that one reason for low turnout among poor Americans is that they don’t perceive significant ideological differences between Republicans and Democrats. (If this sounds ridiculous, recall that Obamacare was originally Romneycare.) Add to this Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page’s finding that the top 10 percent of earners so dominate politics that the average citizen’s influence on policy-making is now “near zero,” and moribund political participation among the poor begins to look less like complacency than captivity.

For all their carefully curated political and cultural capital, the aspirational class members face an uncertain future. As global capitalism continues to immiserate millions and systematically destroy the planet, Barbara and John Ehrenreich argue, the remnants of the PMC will have to make a choice. They can make common cause with the traditional working class and attempt to break the power of capital, or they can cling to what little status they have left. The debt-ridden college graduates who joined Occupy Wall Street or voted for Bernie Sanders appear to have made a gamble for the former. But as Currid-Halkett’s portrait of the aspirational class shows, there are plenty who will keep treading bad water so long as their own stay afloat.

No portion of the PMC has been more blinded by its righteous self-image than the Democratic Party establishment, which failed to foresee a devastating loss in last year’s election. In their abandonment of the working class, Democrats validated the old saying that Republicans fear their base while Democrats despise theirs. “For every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania,” Senator Chuck Schumer boasted last summer, “we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia—and you can repeat that in Ohio and Illinois and Wisconsin.” Hillary Clinton went on to trade campaigning in Wisconsin for an appearance on Broad City, an interview in Lenny Letter, and a shout-out to Hamilton in her speech at the Democratic National Convention.

Clinton’s was a campaign tailor-made for and by the aspirational class, which is why its members, notably those settled on prestigious media perches, were blindsided when the so-called “blue wall” crumbled last November. When Tyler Cowen dreams of restoring America to some prior state of innovative glory, his book can sound like an extended riff on Donald Trump’s now-infamous campaign slogan. But it was the Democrats’ pitiful rejoinder to Trump that could serve as a mantra for the complacent class: “America is already great.”