A new word recently entered the English vocabulary – yuppies. The term may not sound very serious, but the reality it connotes and describes is one of the significant social and moral developments within recent times. What is a yuppie?
At a simple level, the word abbreviates the phrase, young urban professional (with the implied connotation of being upwardly mobile). But that is more of an etymology than a definition. What really is a yuppie? We guide our lives more by unconscious mythology and inchoate feelings than we do by rationality and conscious philosophy, and so I will define the term by a series of slogans: quality of life, upward mobility, the pursuit of excellence, material comfort, and the movement towards privacy and individualism.
Since the appeal here is to understand through feeling, I will not try to expatiate on these slogans.
Suffice to say that the unconscious, and in many cases the conscious, ideal that moves people today is that of success, of moving up the ladder, of being rich, of having a beautiful body, of being well-dressed, of having prestige, of luxuriating in material comfort, of achieving optimally (but in comfort) everything that is potentially attainable within our limits. In many cases, this brings with it unashamed ambition and the expressed desire to leave the pack behind. Central to being a yuppie is to set oneself, through excellence, above others. This, most naturally, brings with it an excessive need for individualism and privacy. The yuppie ideal is to have the optimum of both of these.
Obviously, not all of these things are bad, or novel. People have always wanted these things and the myths of the past (rags to riches, work hard and get ahead) hardly seem different. Further, there is nothing immoral in these things in themselves, nor is the emphasis on excellence something that should be prophetically challenged. What is novel, and less moral, about the yuppie phenomenon is that the pursuit of excellence and the hankering after an ever-higher quality of life is tied to an explicit philosophy of life within which unbridled individualism, selfishness, and idiosyncratic development are unabashedly held up as virtue.
Salvation lies in self-development, pure and simple. Everything…family, community, church, morality, service to others, sacrifice…. Takes its place, makes sense, and has value only insofar as it enhances idiosyncratic development. In Greek, the word IDIOS means “a movement towards one’s own.” What the yuppie espouses and nurtures, both inside of self and within society, is precisely the idiosyncratic, the movement towards self. Self-development is pursued with all the gravity and asceticism that was formerly reserved for religion because, for the yuppie, self-development is salvation, it is the religious project.
How deeply we are influenced by this ideal is evident in a variety of ways. Among other things, we see it by looking at what we read and by looking at what attracts us. When we survey the best-seller lists for non-fiction books in recent years, we see that virtually every one of these books has to do with achievement, the lure of success, the price of success, the quality of our lifestyles, and the pursuit of excellence: e.g., Iacocco, Jane Fonda’s Workout Book, In Pursuit of Excellence, From Backyard to NHL.
We also see this in the proclivity we have for the rich and the famous. Neil Postman, in Amusing Ourselves to Death, describes the 1983 commencement exercises at Yale University. Several honorary degrees were awarded, including one to Mother Teresa. As she and the others, each in turn, received their degrees, the audience applauded appropriately, but with, as Postman says, a slight hint of reserve and impatience, “for it wished to give its heart to the final recipient who waited shyly in the wings.” As the details of her achievements were read, many of the audience left their seats and surged towards the stage. Finally, when the name of the final recipient was announced, Meryl Streep, the audience “unleashed a sonic boom of affection, enough to wake the New Haven dead.” I have nothing against Meryl Streep. She is a great actress, and, for all I know, perhaps a great human being as well. The point of recounting this is the audience’s response. In the end, their applause represents a religious response, the new ET CUM SPIRITUM TUUM.
There is a new Lord stalking western culture and that audience just acknowledged his spirit. The yuppie phenomenon, despite the fluffy superficial sound of the term itself, is a major event in our time. The change is not for the better. As long as we make a religion out of the quality of life, material comfort, the pursuit of excellence, and individualism, we can forget about genuine community, any sense of the corporate, social justice, the preferential option of the poor, and any ideal, religious or otherwise, that takes us beyond ourselves.
When the most-read periodical within our society is People Magazine, when Dallas is the most watched TV show in the world, and when we are impatient to move along Mother Teresa so that we can get to the real event, Meryl Streep, then the lives and the ideals of the rich and famous have indeed replaced the life of Christ as our religious ideal. Some of my friends do not think that the yuppie phenomenon is very serious. After all, hippies, yuppies, beatniks, whatever, we’ve always had our fringe groups! They are not very important, life will go on as before!
Again, I quote Postman: “The last time a similar conclusion was drawn was when the director of the American Association of Blacksmiths remarked that he had read about the automobile but that he was convinced it would have no consequences for the future of his organization.”