Monday, August 29, 2011

Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There

The Book: Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There, by David Brooks (Simon & Schuster, 2000).

Why you should care: An examination of the rise of an educated, wealthy elite that has created new markets and provided many of the entrepreneurs who tap these markets.

As an impressionable youth of 21 years, I stumbled upon an article in Esquire magazine (a magazine I hadn’t read before nor, if the truth be told, have I read since) that made quite an impression on me. Entitled “
The Dangerous Arrogance of the New Elite,” the article—authored by a fellow Minnesotan named David Lebedoff, now a Gray Plant Mooty colleague—examined the rise of a powerful new class within society based on measured intelligence and meritocracy, and suggested this might not necessarily be a good thing for a society founded on the principle of majority rule and the collective wisdom of the masses.

Flash forward many, many years.
David Brooks, an articulate and urbane conservative columnist for the New York Times (and the only such conservative whose writings many of my more left-leaning friends actually enjoy, let alone stomach), writes a book that dissects this new class, which to all appearances has replaced the stolid, inbred, and materialistic WASP upper middle class of the Eisenhower years.

It all started when universities began to use
standardized tests as part of their admissions programs, turning colleges and universities from “finishing houses for the social elite” into “meritocratic and intellectual hothouses” churning out a social class “responsible for more yards of built-in bookshelf space than any group in history.” The information age heaps rewards on this educated group and widens the income gap between the educated and uneducated. Brooks looks at the wedding announcements in the New York Times to identify the markers of these upscale Americans—college, graduate school, career path, and parents’ professions.

A decade later, his observations still ring true. An interesting sociological observation, you might say, but what does this have to do with entrepreneurs?

Well, for one thing, this class is a vast market with incredible financial resources and much disposable income. A hallmark of this class is that it is “financially correct”—it tries to spend its disposable income without looking vulgar or too materialistic, which leads it to “spend huge amounts of money on things that used to be cheap.” Think about that. When I was young (harumph!), coffee was cheap and came in one flavor and water came from the tap (or, on a hot summer’s day, the garden hose). Back in the 1950s, who would have foreseen the exploding market for lattes and bottled water?

More important, perhaps, is that this class combines the search for personal fulfillment of 1960s bohemians with the materialistic streak of the 1980s yuppie bourgeoisie—hence the term “Bobo”—and these characteristics may actually encourage individualistic entrepreneurial activity. According to Brooks, Bobos view life as being about “making sure you get the most out of yourself, which means putting yourself in a job that is spiritually fulfilling, socially constructive, experientially diverse, emotionally enriching, self-esteem boosting, perpetually challenging, and eternally edifying.” Work is “an expression of their entire being.”

Sound like anyone you know?

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