It’s an old ad world wheeze. If you want to target a market, first you identify it, then you characterize it, then you give it a catchy acronym – ideally one that’s easy to remember and, more importantly, is cool enough to make its members proud to own and keen to live up to.
“Yuppie” was probably the most effective. First termed in the 1980s to describe young, upwardly mobile professionals, it’s hung around ever since, even if it has lost the slicked-back hair and the Gordon Gecko greed-fest.
Now there’s a new term, and this time, they’re talking about us.
“Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There,” a book by David Brooks, formerly of The Wall Street Journal and now an editor at Newsweek and The Weekly Standard, sets out a case for what he calls “Bobos,” the bohemian bourgeoisie who combine the high income of successful capitalists with a sixties counterculture of non-conformism.
These are people, he says, who eschew vulgar consumption in favor of social causes. They drive hybrids, not SUVs. They avoid big-ticket goods but will spend several hundred dollars on a kitchen knife. They seek authenticity and pay unreal prices for the organic, free-range products that deliver it.
And they consider themselves creators who do business rather than businesspeople whose goal is to make lots of money – even though they do and enjoy what it brings.
If that sounds familiar, there’s probably a good reason. Bobos are also the sort of well-lettered elite who have discovered the social value of education and specialization – and their financial values too. They’re Bill Gates not Donald Trump, Oliver Stone not Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bernard-Henri Levy not Christoper Hitchens (and certainly not his brother).
In short, they’re geeks — specialists in fields from software engineering to interior design and from anthropology to art dealing. They – or, more precisely, we – have picked up plenty of knowledge, want to see (and ideally, help create) a better world, but we aren’t ashamed to make a sack of money while we do it.
We geeks, Bobos – whatever – want to have our wholewheat, free-range, organic cake, eat it and share it with developing countries too.
That the baby-boomers the book describes aren’t like our parents isn’t new, of course. The chauvinist, chain-smoking, sharp-suited office workers of “Mad Men” might be unrecognizable now but they were only a generation away. As Bobos though, we’re more like those crusty old folk than we like to admit. We might buy fairtrade, wear 100 percent cotton, donate to Obama and have women bosses – heck, we might even be women – but we’re still addicted to our iPhones, our expensive rainforest treks in Guatamala and our sustainably-sourced pinewood coffee tables. It’s all still luxury and middle-class contentment. One-downmanship might feel better than one-upmanship but it’s still a version of beat-the-Joneses.
Being pigeon-holed isn’t pleasant but we have to admit, the hole fits.
Learning from Bobo
So as David Brooks holds a mirror up to us what can – or should – we do about what we see?
If we’re smart – and we Bobos like to think we’re certainly that – we take pride in the caring, communal outlook we carried over from the sixties. And then we look for ways to cash in.
That’s not too hard because as we’ve seen, we Bobos are careful shoppers. We buy professional-grade goods, even if we never use them to do more than chop a tomato or fill a corner of the garage. We’re willing to spend money, especially when we feel we’re getting quality in return.
That means branding is going to be more important than ever. The actual quality difference between a top-of-the-range hiking boot, for example, and a bog standard sports shoe is likely to be pretty small (they’re both, after all, made in the same Guangdong workshop by the same rural migrant). It’s the image of expertise that counts – reflected in part by the swollen price tag.
So that’s double good news. It means that even in today’s tough times, it’s still possible for geeks to charge large sums for our specialized services; and it means too that we don’t have to look further than ourselves and our own spending habits to see where and for what we can make those demands. Unlike the bra-burning revolutionaries we left behind, we’re bourgeois enough not to feel guilty about it.
There is a piece of bad news though, even if it’s not mentioned in David Brooks’ analysis. Social acronyms have a habit of coming and going. Bobos are yesterday’s hippies, after all, and soon we’ll be tomorrow’s pensioners. Generation X is already giving way to Generation Y – and they won’t even pay for their music. Time to put our expertise into a book then, hit the lecture circuit and enjoy paradise while it lasts.