There are some 72 million "Baby Boomers," people born after World War II and before 1964. Coming of age in the late 1960s, they were skeptical of their parent’s values. Many of them engaged in political and cultural experiment. They were egalitarian, cooperative, spiritually experimental, counter-cultural and restless.
In the 1978 film Animal House John Belushi seized the guitar held by a folkie Stephen Bishop and smashed it against the wall. This felt to some like
a final repudiation of the values of the 60s. Boomers were primed for a new stylistic signature.
By mid-decade they were calling themselves "preppies" and "yuppies." Now defined by a more conventional frame of mind, boomers embraced an aggressive individualism, upward mobility, career orientation, status competition, all of this given the patina of an "old money" symbolism.
The Preppie-Yuppie arc took roughly 10 years. Tom Wolfe was there at the beginning with The Right Stuff, a book that restored certain values. And he was there at the end, with the publication of The Bonfires of the Vanities, a novel that declared the bankruptcy of the trend.
1978 Animal House
1979 The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe
1980 The Preppy Handbook, Lisa Birnbach
1880 Free To Choose, Milton and Rose Friedman
1982 Family Ties and the unexpected celebrity of Michael J. Fox as Alex P. Keaton
1982 In search of excellence, Tom Peters
1987 Wall Street
1987 The Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe
The Preppie-Yuppie trend may have come and gone, but it left a lasting impression on Boomers. The rest of the world might move on to new cultural developments (alternative music, rave cultures, digital communities), but boomers, apparently, were set for life. They would wear those Polo ponies to the grave.
The Boomer aesthetic was old money, as served up by the likes of Ralph Lauren, Restoration Hardware, BMW, Land’s End, Rolex, Cole Hahn. Boomers had a fashion. Just as plainly, the fashion had them. Together, the demographic group and their cultural envelope were mutually presupposing. Boomers were fixed in place.
Or are they? I guess the developmental literature says that the older someone is, the less likely they are to embrace any kind of change, social or stylistic. If we were in a cynical frame of mind, we might resort to the old chestnut that says "prisoners learn to love their cells." And this psychological truism is accompanied by a sociological one that say that the public world has a way of acting upon us, so that eventually choices take on the weight of necessity. Anthropologists might say that as we age, we loose our cultural elasticity. It just gets harder to imagine alternatives, and harder still to act on them. In any case, the social sciences, I think, agree. As we age, rigidity overtakes us. Familiarity grows more important. Stasis wins out. (Perhaps that’s stasis will out.)
But boomers are famous for making their own way. Once the stereotypes of age begin to interfere with their self regard and social mobility, they can be relied to react badly. The spirit of contrariness will galvanize them and they will insist once more on their much prized rights of self authorship.
Are there stirrings? Yes, there are stirrings. The Bobo phenomenon spotted by David Brooks shows a certain restlessness, a willingness perhaps to participate in the 1990s moment, or just to throw off the deep conventionality of Yuppie orthodoxy. There are Pirate watches. There are BMW with their new wicked styling. There are hints. But every signal is surrounded by noise, and we would be wrong to take noise as evidence of a new signal in the works. It’s just noise!
So, here we are. Boomers, will they were embrace their preppie/yuppie bourgeois concept indefinitely? Or is there one more stylistic (and some other) revolt waiting in the wings?
Brooks, David. 2000. Bobos in Paradise: The new upper class and how they got there. New York: Simon & Schuster.