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Book Review: ‘Triumph of the Yuppies,’ by Tom McGrath

TRIUMPH OF THE YUPPIES: America, the Eighties, and the Creation of an Unequal Nation, by Tom McGrath

In 1967, a bushy-haired Jerry Rubin walked onto the balcony of the New York Stock Exchange with a few friends and flung dollar bills down to the trading floor. Rubin, a co-founder of the activist group the Yippies, was delighted when the traders on the floor piled on top of one another to grab the money.

A decade and a half later, Rubin went back to Wall Street — as a securities analyst. “Politics and rebellion distinguished the ’60s,” Rubin wrote in a New York Times opinion piece announcing his surprising new job. “Money and financial interest will capture the passion of the ’80s.” Rubin had gone from Yippie co-founder to yuppie elder statesman.

In his breezy history, “Triumph of the Yuppies,” Tom McGrath sets out to explain the social and cultural transformation that Rubin embodied. What happened in the 1980s? Why did the United States suddenly fall in love with finance while inequality skyrocketed? And what, McGrath asks, did the yuppies have to do with it?

Yuppies — the young urban professionals who flocked to cities to renovate old townhouses, eat at interesting restaurants and make lots of money — were a fraught psychographic from the jump. The word showed up in print as early as 1980, in a Chicago magazine story questioning the notion that a yuppie-led “urban renaissance” was underway in cities across the country.

But something was happening. Recent college grads were choosing cities over suburbs. And, as the journalists who kept writing articles about them kept pointing out, the yuppies were not even pretending that they didn’t care about money.

McGrath, the former editor in chief of Philadelphia magazine, makes this open pursuit of wealth his central theme as he alternates among snapshots of yuppies, the national political scene and major figures in American business.

Those figures include Jack Welch, the chief executive who turned General Electric from a stodgy industrial firm into a finance-driven (but ultimately unsustainable) juggernaut, and Michael Milken, the “junk bond king” who rode the ’80s financialization wave first to extraordinary wealth and then, after pleading guilty to charges of securities fraud and conspiracy, to prison. (President Donald Trump pardoned Milken in 2020.) These profiles are competently sketched, but readers who are familiar with the broad outlines won’t learn much.

The snapshots of yuppies are more fun. In the late ’70s, Richard Thalheimer, a young entrepreneur who sold copier products, started pitching a fancy digital watch to the new runners sweating along America’s sidewalks. The watch sold so well that Thalheimer launched an entire catalog of grown-up toys that nobody needed but everybody, or at least every yuppie, wanted.

Within a few years, the Sharper Image (the name dated to his copy machine days) was bringing in nearly $100 million a year selling household essentials like a safari hat with a solar-powered fan ($59), a pillow shaped like a BMW ($42) and a suit of armor ($2,450).

As the products, people and catchphrases pile up, “Triumph of the Yuppies” can feel, for better and worse, like a lost verse of Billy Joel’s boomer anthem “We Didn’t Start the Fire”:

Häagen-Dazs, Perrier, Cuisinart, M.B.A./Milton Friedman’s “Free to Choose,” Jane Fonda, running shoes/Gary Hart, Youngstown, Ivan Boesky, trickle down/Wall Street job, Turbo Saab, Sharper Image catalog.

Thankfully, there are some through lines, like Rubin, the former Yippie provocateur who by 1983 was renting out Studio 54 in the early evenings for professional networking events that he called, in a moment of peak cringe, “business be-ins.”

A few years later, he went on the college lecture circuit to debate another Yippie co-founder, Abbie Hoffman, who had pranked the New York Stock Exchange alongside Rubin.

Hoffman was looking for a new crop of protesters, but he wasn’t finding it. “Where is the Woodstock Nation of this generation?” he asked an audience of students in 1985. “The campuses have become hotbeds of social rest, about as exciting as hospital food.”

Rubin rejected protest altogether. “Why define ourselves as protesters,” he asked, “when we can become the people in power?”

The way to power, Rubin said, was to start businesses. And the people starting the businesses were “the yuppies, the baby boom generation that challenged the government in the ’60s,” and was turning America from “an industrial country” into “an information country.”

Hoffman won over the audience, but Rubin was right about the future.

No moment is a monolith. In the ’80s, some students protested investment in apartheid-era South Africa while others skipped the demonstrations in favor of internships at investment banks. This spring, many of the students graduating amid a new wave of protests will head straight to Wall Street.

In fact, graduating from an elite college and moving to the city to try to get rich has become so common that we barely notice it. The ultimate triumph of the yuppies is that we don’t even call them yuppies anymore.

TRIUMPH OF THE YUPPIES: America, the Eighties, and the Creation of an Unequal Nation | By Tom McGrath | Grand Central Publishing | 325 pp. | $32

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