The New Upper Class: Oh, What Happy People!

Well now, let’s bring on the Bobos and see if they can make it in the language. There is no predicting about gimmicky ideas such as this one. Only time and the success of an adroit publicity campaign will tell us if “Bobo” is to be the successor term to “yuppie.” As it stands, the Bobo makes his appearance in American letters in a new, much-promoted book entitled Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There (Simon & Schuster). It helps if you don’t confuse the Bobo with the bonobo or Pan paniscus , the pygmy chimpanzee of the Belgian Congo (a k a Zaire and, more recently, the Democratic Republic of the Congo).

David Brooks, the author of this failed satire, says he invented the word to mark the arrival among us of a new social type, a hybrid derived from the bo hemians, or the wild people of the 1960’s, and the bo urgeois, or the Gordon Gekkos of the 1980’s. The well-schooled, highly credentialed Bobo, we read, has taken over as the dominant type comprising the American master class. In reality what Mr. Brooks has done is gone and written a panegyric to the type you see in those expensive Upper East Side restaurants, the young and newly rich who play with numbers and believe it’s thanks to them the world can make a living.

As contrasted to the oft-condemned yuppie, the Bobo is a pretty snazzy sort of a person, which goes to explain why Mr. Brooks-who evidently started out to make fun of this animal of his own invention-is happy to put himself among their number. “The Bobos take everything that is profane,” Mr. Brooks writes, “and make it sacred. We have taken something that might have been grubby and materialistic and turned it into something elevated. We take the quintessential bourgeois activity, shopping, and turn it into quintessential bohemian activities: art, philosophy, social action. Bobos possess the Midas touch in reverse. Everything we handle turns into soul.”

The closest textual analysis fails to reveal the slightest tinge of irony in these words. Note, if you will, the use of the first-person plural pronoun, suggesting not an observer once removed emotionally but an adherent, a proud partisan of this early 21st-century version of jeunesse dorée . A new generation of gilded youth comes with the regularity of comets, always insufferably self-assured, always positive of the uniqueness of its spirituality and always firm in the conviction that, at long last, the right rich kids have come along to lead the no-necks, no-names and no-bos-that is, the rest of us, who lack personal trainers and seem unaware of the hair growing out of our noses. In Boboland, the guys work on making sure that the stubble of their beards is precisely one-eighth of an inch long before putting on their $3,000 suits. And the women, how do they make the sacred out of the profane? Well, there is 39-year-old Allison Schieffelin, who claims that her civil rights are being violated because Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Company pays her something in excess of only $1 million a year, less than it pays its male Bobos: nothing “grubby and materialistic” in that. (All of which begs the important question: Is the whole lot of ’em down there at Morgan Stanley-every man Jack and woman Jill-worth the powder it would take to shoot ’em between the eyes?)

There are some intentionally funny pages in this book, but as best as I can make out from the context, Mr. Brooks, alas, expects the above quotation to be received without smiles. The non-Bobo or helot portion of the population should do aught but utter huzzahs that this saintly cadre has risen up to rule over us: “As in so many spheres of Bobo life, all that was profane has been made holy. Businesspeople talk like artists. Corporations enthuse creativity and liberation. Phenomenally successful corporate consultants … seem more like spiritual advisors than efficiency experts.” Perhaps this reader is too clod-brained to pick up the facetious intent, but I fear not. From all outward appearances, the kid who, with head held high, wrote these words actually believes his own stuff.

By way of describing the Boboesque talent for turning water into wine and passing other miracles leading to the reign of the just, Mr. Brooks writes: “For example, hanging around the corporate headquarters of Restoration Hardware in Marin County for a few days, I was struck by the number of times employees praised C.E.O. Stephen Gordon for being ‘loose’ and ‘real.’ His associates happily recount the time Gordon led a water balloon fight and a game of Red Rover during their company retreat.” What can one add to that vignette, except perhaps to say how refreshing it is to read of an organization in which subordinates can speak of the boss with such candor. This shouldn’t surprise us, however, because in Bobodom, the bosses are all loosely real or really loose and the staff dresses informally at the office. In the pre-Bobonic age into which this antique was born, however, anal osculation of the boss was a dollop less nauseating because brown-nosing was recognized as a necessary means of getting ahead and flowery rationalizations for doing it were gratuitous.

It’s stunning to read what splendid people have taken over, ensconced themselves as the Establishment and are running the country. The Boboistically inclined are “prosperous without seeming greedy … they have risen toward the top without too obviously looking down on those below; they have achieved success without committing certain socially sanctioned affronts to the ideal of social equality; they have constructed a prosperous lifestyle while avoiding the old clichés of conspicuous consumption …”

Mr. Brooks, as a loyal and proud Bobo, is on the inside looking out and may, therefore, not understand how visible-I hesitate to use the word conspicuous -members of his order are as they tool around in their Land Rovers and that fancy car of Japanese manufacture whose name always escapes me. We raggedy non-Bobos see them in luxurious coffee bars dressed comme il faut in their country clothes. We have noted your presence, Mr. Brooks. We know enough, when we come across a Bobo, to bring a knuckle to the forehead in the modern way, which is to make the Bobo feel that he is loose and real and democratic but still king of the mountain.

Bobos in Paradise contains a trying number of pages about what the Boboliki buy and why. “The aim is to surround yourself with products that purport to have no social status significance because they were once owned by people who were so simple and virtuous they didn’t realize how fashionable they were. That is why the richer Bobos get, the more they live like Shakers. If you go into a Bobo home, you will possibly find Shaker-inspired stereo consoles and Shaker-inspired workstations.” Enough, enough. Unfortunately, this is one of those books which one criticizes merely by quoting from it.

According to Mr. Brooks, Boboismo is here to stay, if not for a thousand years, then at least until the Bobos are superseded by angels. One of the reasons for the Bobos’ staying power-apparently they’ve already been around eight going on 10 years-is the totality of their takeover: “Today’s establishment is everywhere. It exercises its power subtly, over ideas and concepts, and therefore pervasively.” If that sounds a little spooky, you are not to worry, because “the meritocratic Bobo class is rich with the spirit of self-criticism. It is flexible and amorphous enough to co-opt that which it does not already command. The Bobo meritocracy will not be easily toppled, even if some group were to rise up and conclude that it should be.” Then again, toppling is not so great a threat to Boboastic hegemony as just being laughed out of town.

So, please join with me and sing the refrain: “Oh, I wish I were a Bobo / And not a hobo man / For if I were a Bobo / I’d make all the gold I can.”

The New Upper Class: Oh, What Happy People!