Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Bobos or boomers?

This is a short that I wrote a little while ago.

Bobos Refined

Public Sociologist

Brooks’ engaging work of “comic sociology” provides us with some valuable tools to discuss modern society (Bobos in Paradise 2000). Bobos, or bourgeois-bohemians, very nicely captures the flavor of an emerging international elite. There are two points that I would like to discuss about Bobos.

Bobos or Boomers

Brooks points out that the collapsing of the bohemian into the bourgeois may be the result of the rise of an economy and class structure based more on education and achievement, and less on breeding. This may be the case. I would however posit that there might be another factor involved as well.

Bobos are simply grown-up Baby Boomers. Brooks recognizes this, but it needs to be restated. This is a generation that gained a sense of social consciousness through the late 1960s. Boomers underwent a distinctly Bohemian transformation during this time period.

This generation then gained a sense of business acumen and enjoyed a taste of material success in the next stage of their generational career. The yuppies of the 1980s epitomized this drive for material success. Boomers acquired distinctly bourgeois tastes at this time.

It is a little hard to categorize the 1990s just yet, but the end result is that all that work in mid career finally paid off. So now we have a generation of mid- and late-career folks who, as a whole, have these very contradictory moral drives.

To outsiders, the hippie-cum-yuppie was an ideal type worthy of the worst derision. This is a character that, while young and idealistic, demanded that the world stop and change to suit him or her. As soon as this character graduated from college and had to pay bills, he or she sold out to the highest bidder as quickly as possible and then reaped the consumptive benefits that earlier college education provided.

Of course, this hippie-cum-yuppie probably doesn’t exist. Those who stayed true to their hippie ideals went on to become anthropologists at community colleges. Such an individual managed to maintain her ideals, while being able to make a reasonable living. Teaching in community colleges allowed her to avoid selling out to the rat race of academia. She wears dangly earrings made by native people to illustrate her commitments. This is one of the individuals in Brooks’ “Superiority Complex” (Atlantic Online May 2002).

Those who kept quiet in college went on to become successful upper executives in Payroll departments. Finally extricating himself from the misery of leftist-dominated colleges of his era, he was free to hone his business skills and advance toward material success. Eventually he gets tassels on his golf bag, a Porsche, and a great watch.

From the outside then, the Boomers generate a reputation that individuals within the generation most likely don’t deserve. The generational character is more than the sum of all the individuals within it, and is certainly not a picture of specific individuals within it. The anthropologist and the payroll executive only comprise pieces of the greater whole.

Now this aggregate of Baby Boomers is mid-life and mid-career. Boomers have as much money now as they ever will. The values hammered out early in their experience have influenced elite culture. Thus the Bobos are really the Boomers who as a generation have worked out the relationship between anti-establishment values and material success. While I argue that the hippie-cum-yuppie is only an ideal type, it is still an interesting tool. It might be helpful to think of the ideal-typical character (we’ll call him Boomer) as a mildly spoiled and naïve, but intelligent person growing up. Off to college, young Boomer becomes the radical his ideals tell him to be. He eats it up. Then reluctantly graduating and waffling through his twenties we find Boomer falling into a career that his college prepared him for while he wasn’t looking. As a spouse and kids come along, Boomer pays more attention to his work and realizes that he likes to exceed there too. Entering his forties, he finds himself owning a career, a minivan, and three kids, and wonders how that happened. As his mid-life crisis hits, aging Boomer realizes he has lost his moral certainty gained in college. He also finds that he dislikes young punks an embarrassing amount. After all, he did once advocate never trusting anyone over 30, and now he can’t stand anyone under 30. Boomer and his family try to ensure that despite their material success and despite their seemingly average consumption patterns, they consume responsibly.

Enter the marketers. While Boomer seems to have a split personality, it turns out that you can sell him and his family a lot of expensive stuff if you can appeal to both sides of his personality. Not unlike sport utility commercials that convince the buyer that owning the rugged humvee-jeep-Xterra makes him both a unique individual and a member of an elite community, marketers selling to Boomer need to resolve the tension between having a lot of values, and simply having a lot, as Brooks himself puts it. This is why Seabrook, in Nobrow (2000), can so accurately point out that the focus on consumption in contemporary America is not on quality, as he claims it once was, but rather on authenticity. Authenticity is a moral claim in a world where lifestyles are picked out of a consumer catalog. This is reflected in Brooks’ anthropologist: she is just so damn earnest.

Bobos Displaced

But there is another point about Bobos that is worth discussing. That is the focus on a sense of place. One of the driving forces behind Bobo culture is the pursuit of a sense of place. This idea of place infuses academic work, environmental groups, free trade movements, farmer’s markets, clothing companies, sport utility design, and perhaps most importantly of all – marketing for all of these things.

This sense of place is an extension of the environmental consciousness of Bobos. Think globally and act locally. As such, it may be a distinctly bohemian piece of the Bobo equation. But the prices ensure that the bourgeois isn’t far behind. Brooks’ $10,000 dollar slate shower and Patagonia’s $140 recycled pop-bottle vests ensures that the consumer is going to spend a lot of time indoors and away from the slate paying for these items.

A sense of place is a wonderful thing of course. This hardly needs to be explained. People will be more careful of their watershed if they envision their kids swimming in the local river. Corporations are less likely to create a superfund site downtown if the CEO lives in town. A sense of place will have positive effects on the local environment as well as the local community. People who are rooted have a responsibility to both.

But rooted is precisely what Bobos are not. The economy has changed and is now international. This internationalism forces elites to be mobile. Elites respond by being mobile. Especially in the late 1990s it was fairly common practice to play companies against each other for the most sought after workers, who would move from workplace to workplace and city to city with the best offer. Who could blame such rational behavior?

Kaplan, in An Empire Wilderness (1998), calls these people cosmopolitan elites, and points out that these folks enjoy an international culture that is remarkably similar across the globe. Whether in western Omaha, Silicon Valley, or Bangkok, a good espresso and a nice Thai restaurant are not far away. Kaplan’s cosmopolitan elites are Brooks’ Bobos. These are two different models for capturing the same change in the economy, and the elites’ position in that new economy. They also share the focus on the culture of this new elite.

Kaplan juxtaposes these cosmopolitan elites against locals everywhere. Spending time with these cosmopolitans will eventually yield derisive talk about the local locals. While the elites will never say they don’t like the locals for being poor white trash, this is invariable the issue. Locals don’t share the international experience of the cosmopolitans, they don’t have the broadly cultivated taste of modern elites (‘my favorite two genres are early jazz and late 70s punk’), they are not especially open-minded when it comes to multi-cultural issues, and they are notoriously distrustful of outsiders.

This distrust of outsiders captures one of the essential differences between locals and Bobos. This is an expression of the sense of place that the Bobos strive for. Locals are distrustful because you’re not from here – you don’t belong here. This is simply a sense of place being defined exclusively rather than inclusively. The locals will not tell the Bobos where to go plinking cans along the levy, they will not tell where to drink beer and go skinny-dipping, they will not reveal their favorite hunting spot. This knowledge is the very definition of local cultural capital – a sense of place.

This difference is played out in their symbols as well. In cold climates, Bobos wear North Face and Columbia outerwear. This is clothing that is good enough to climb mountains in, or ski the backcountry in. It is tough enough to handle the grinding of equipment, ice, and granite. Locals wear Carhart coats. This is also clothing that is extremely tough. It is good enough to drill for oil on the tundra, lay brick in the snow, and splice cable during the spring thaw. The difference in these two garments reflects the difference between these two groups. Both are meant to deal with obnoxious outdoor environments, both are very endurable. But there the difference ends. Few North Face coats will ever see the north face of even a small hill, much less Everest. Few Carhart coats will not see mud, snow, and construction sites. The Bobos’ clothing is perhaps a little more ambitious than the locals, as is their sense of place, but it is also underutilized, as is their sense of place. The locals’ clothing is more likely to get used in its intended manner, just as their sense of place is likely to involve real people living in real communities in real places, with skinny dipping spots, plinking spots, and hunting spots.

In sum, Bobos are likely to be dreaming about Everest, Tibet, and Sumatra wearing their North Face parka sitting in traffic. They would like their sense of place to engage here, except that here is so damn flat and boring, and the locals are so obnoxious.

The locals are likely to be planning to stop by Grant’s point, the levy, or the overgrown orchard after work, wearing their Carhart Arctic Coat. They too, may well be stuck in traffic however. They are likely to be thinking that while new industry in town is supposed to be a good thing, it would be nice if all these university types would take their expresso and go home.


I present some commentary on Brooks’ Bobos here. First, along with other societal forces that caused the emergence of Bobos, one of the important causes is the trajectory of the Baby Boom generation as it ages. The culture of the Bobos is the result of the Boom generation going through the bohemian 1960s and 1970s, and then the bourgeois 1980s and 1990s. Bobos are, I am arguing, the epitome of the maturing Baby Boom generation.

Secondly, I explore the relationship between Bobos, locals, and a sense of place. Bobos yearn for a sense of place in their culture, because this is precisely what they leave behind in their pursuit of economic and career success. Where a sense of place does emerge is among the non-Bobos, who are necessarily involved with their families, friends, and communities in the context of their natural environment. This sense of place is not exactly what the Bobos are looking for, in part because in doesn’t reflect the other aspects of their Bobos culture, and also in part because the locals are not dieing to share it with other dis-placed but economically more successful people. Those people are outsiders. Those people are Bobos.


lib said...

I don't know if I'm "allowed" to comment on here, but dad showed me this and I don't know your email so I thought I'd comment here. (This is your cousin Libby) I don't know if you've heard about my US trip, but I'm travelling over to visit people in around March/April. I was wondering if I could drop in and see you, Barb and the kids sometime? I'd also like to talk about Iceland because I'd really like to go there on the trip but I don't really know much about it.

Michael said...

Hell yeah you can comment! Although I don't check it all that often.

You MUST come visit. Ring me up on private email. Your dad has it.