New Book Blames Yuppies for Trump, Housing—Basically Everything

(Bloomberg) -- In the early 1980s, college-educated twenty- and thirtysomethings began taking up residence in blighted urban neighborhoods. Local press in Chicago, Philadelphia, New York and San Francisco reported on these nascent gentrifiers as if they were an invasive species. “They seek neither comfort nor security, but stimulation,” wrote Dan Rottenberg in Chicago magazine.

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These so-called yuppies—a portmanteau of young urban professionals—were seen as regressive, distinct from their forebears, for whom escaping from cities to the suburbs was a hallmark of success. Yuppie success, however, was material, a toehold gained in a changing economy no longer organized around manufacturing things but around financial services: manufacturing money into more money.

Veteran magazine journalist Tom McGrath autopsies the demographic in his engaging, well-researched and breezy historical book Triumph of the Yuppies: America, the Eighties, and the Creation of an Unequal Nation ($32, Grand Central). As teenagers, this college-educated vanguard of the baby boomer generation participated in the late-1960s protest movement. They then turned toward self-fulfillment in their 20s as the movement lurched into chaos and the country lurched into Nixonian retrogression. So by the time 1980 came around, they were ready to focus their narcissism on financial gain.

McGrath focuses chapters on the big names of the era—Jerry Rubin, Jack Welch, Jane Fonda, Michael Milken, Donald Trump—who exemplify the yuppie ethos. But he goes well beyond the familiar narratives that typically define their stories.

We may know of Rubin’s move from ’60s agitator (he was one of the Chicago Seven arrested for anti-war activities in 1968) to 1980s investment banker. Less familiar is his members-only executive networking salon, which moved from a private apartment to take over the defunct Studio 54 in Manhattan. Likewise, we are well aware of how Fonda and her ubiquitous aerobics tapes—known as a staple of early VCR purchases—helped usher in a shallow gym culture. More surprising is that her enterprise used a method stolen from an instructor who’d rescued her following an on-set injury and that her entire workout business was used to fund then-husband Tom Hayden’s progressive activism and early political career.

McGrath doesn’t simply drop bold-face names. Some of the most detailed and compelling sections of the book feature the stories of little-known proto-yuppies, based on archival and contemporary interviews. These include Steve Poses, who opened a Philadelphia Center City restaurant, Frog, in 1980. It subsequently launched what would be categorized a “foodie” empire today, helping push the wine bar, Asian/French fusion cuisine and the ferns-as-decor trend to the height of sophistication.

We also meet Richard Thalheimer, scion of an Arkansas department store empire, who parlayed jobs selling encyclopedias, yogurt machines and photocopier supplies into the Sharper Image, a $60 million catalog business that peddled gadgets such as digital watches, BMW-shaped pillows and suits of armor. McGrath even takes us back to some of the original writers, like Rottenberg and Cathy Crimmins, who helped popularize the term “yuppie” in their regional reporting for Chicago magazine and Philadelphia City Paper, respectively.

Pointedly, for our contemporary era, McGrath provides texture to the dire economic situation that surrounded the yuppies’ rise: how their move into cities was catalyzed in part by generational downward mobility, combined with double-digit mortgage rates that put home ownership out of reach; and how they spent their money lavishly—almost nihilistically—because rampant double-digit inflation disincentivized saving or considering the future.

A gluttonous desire for wealth ultimately led the yuppies to help dissolve post-war political orthodoxies like corporate responsibility for its workers, progressive income tax on higher-wage earners and protections for unions and American jobs. These led them to support right-winger Ronald Reagan and his supply-side economics. Panaceas such as tax cuts for the wealthy, shrinking of government programs, deregulation of industry and deficit military spending emerged as de rigueur Republican positions. McGrath details the ruinous historical results: The rich got richer, while everyone else floundered. Middle-class manufacturing jobs were shipped overseas as executives privileged shareholder value and their own compensation. Social programs were slashed, harming working people and the vulnerable.

The yuppies, at least for a time, got exactly what they wanted. Wall Street boomed, riding an unprecedented wave of cheap money and ushering in the iconic era where greed was good. Until it wasn’t. The market, and the yuppie allure, crashed in 1987.

That these same economic and social tensions are political flashpoints today shouldn’t be a surprise, McGrath argues. Yuppies are now in charge of the country’s financial, political and legal institutions, their legacy a blueprint for a litany of contemporary horrors. These include ever-increasing income disparity, a celebration of ruthlessness, punitive disregard for workers and the environment, a reckless worship of short-term gain and an insatiable fetishization of brands.

He even ties our contemporary worship of venality, callousness, mendacity and flash to the foundational roots of that most ’80s of characters: Donald Trump.

McGrath focuses almost solely on White, heterosexual yuppies, ignoring racial and ethnic permutations and avoiding (perhaps too kindly) the pioneering role that ’70s urban queers had in establishing the gentrifying DINK (Double Income No Kid) lifestyle of brownstone renovations, bistros and bars, private gyms and conspicuous consumption.

Triumph of the Yuppies is at once illuminating and extremely depressing, a reminder of the havoc the boomer generation has wrought—and will continue to wreak, since it now plans to live forever. But the book also provides a useful reverse roadmap for reviving a more humane existence.

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