Book: Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There
Author: David Brooks
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? The presence of your fingerprints on this magazine is prima facie evidence that you are a Bobo. But let me question you further. Are you now, or have you ever been, inside a Restoration Hardware? Just as I suspected. At breakfast this morning, did your coffee cost more than your newspaper? Was said hot beverage brewed from responsibly picked Costa Rican beans and fashioned into — gasp — a latte? Thought so. Do you utterly reject being an Organization Person and instead consider yourself a card-carrying, self-actualizing, paradigm-shifting, change-embracing knowledge worker for whom work is both a source of income and a search for meaning?
No further questions. In fact, the jury has already reached a verdict: Guilty as charged. You're a Bobo. And you're sentenced to a place atop the American hierarchy.
America now has a new ruling class, argues author David Brooks in his zeitgeisty book, Bobos in Paradise. Well-educated Information Age lions and lionesses who scored well on their aptitude tests and who flourish in a world that prizes merit over heredity have toppled the WASP establishment that dominated postwar American life. Or, as Brooks so nicely puts it, "Dumb good-looking people with great parents have been displaced by smart, ambitious, educated, and antiestablishment people with scuffed shoes."
What makes this new elite unique, and what may be the secret of its success, is that its members have reconciled two seemingly disparate cultures: They have blended the mainstream and the countercultural. Like the investment bankers that many of them are, they have engineered a merger, one that brings together bourgeois values and bohemian attitudes — hence Brooks's somewhat goofy new label that borrows a "bo" from each reconciled half. "These Bobos define our age," he writes. "They are the new establishment. Their hybrid culture is the atmosphere we all breathe."
Bobos sip Starbucks coffee from Pottery Barn mugs while sitting on peasanty but pricey throw rugs writing an Internet business plan on their iBooks. They are people who, as Brooks says, "seem to turn life into one long stint of graduate school." They are people who, uh, read Fast Company.
Indeed, Brooks groks that the new world of business may be the most robust expression of Bobo ascendance. He correctly points out that business is the only "realm of American life where the language of 1960s radicalism remains strong." Bobos have beliefs: Work is personal, computing is social, and knowledge is power — memes that happen to be the mantras that were emblazoned on the cover of the first issue of this magazine, which came out nearly five years ago.
"In 1950s Business Week profiles," Brooks writes, "an executive would be shown sitting in an impressive mahogany-and-brass office or perhaps with his sleeves rolled up at a work site. Now the predominant visual prop is the wacky accouterment. DreamWorks's Jeffrey Katzenberg will be shown with his Supersoaker water cannon ? An amazing number of executives are pictured with domesticated birds like cockatoos perched on shoulders and heads, or with ugly dogs of obscure breeding panting on their laps." Sound familiar?
In less able hands, this book might have turned into a bloated news-magazine trend story — or an angry screed decrying the Bobonic Plague. But Brooks is a felicitous writer and a confessed "defender of the Bobo culture." He's produced a nuanced book that is witty without being wearying and wise without being windy. His deconstruction of New York Times wedding announcements is brilliant — as is his short course on how to be a public intellectual. And, unlike many social critics, David Brooks is fun to read.
My one gripe is that, although Brooks is an astute reader of sociological texts and of commercial-culture entrails, he's not a reporter — at least not in this book — and he buttresses too many of his arguments with wry one-liners instead of with hard data and vivid stories. For his chapter on business life, his reporting consists mainly of crossing the street in Burlington, Vermont — and then overhearing a conversation during lunch. For his chapter on spiritual life, he sits on a rock in Montana and then browses a few nearby bookstores.
But I can't quibble with Brooks's core argument. Heck, at times I felt as if he had installed a secret Web-cam in my house and had been monitoring how my own family lives. (If archaeologists of the 26th century excavate the soil beneath our Washington, dc home, they're sure to find many valuable artifacts of Bobo life circa 2000: spent bags of Starbucks coffee; yellowed diplomas from Amherst, Northwestern, and Yale; and vast reserves of fat-free organic refried beans.)
Many of Brooks's turns of phrase are mordant and memorable. On the folkways of the old establishment: "There were local clubs where town fathers gathered to exchange ethnic jokes and dine on lamb chops topped with canned sauces." On the Bobo obsession with high-end stoves: "They want an oven capacity of 8 cubic feet minimum, just to show they are the sort of people who could roast a bison if necessary."
Yet for all of the book's fresh phrases, I couldn't help feeling a strange twinge of nostalgia. Brooks, I suspect, has described Bobos at their zenith — which means that they now have nowhere to travel but down. And that may already be happening. The glory days of elite colleges, for example, are fading fast. Some of the brightest lights of the new economy — Larry Ellison, Bill Gates, and Steven Spielberg come to mind — are college dropouts. And America's smartest teenagers are starting Web-based businesses instead of trying to ace their achievement tests. In the "What have you done for me lately?" new economy, where you matriculated as an 18-year-old matters far less than the sales of the last product that you shipped.
What's more, the meritocrats — like most elites before them — are showing signs of entrenchment. Despite their quasi-revolutionary lingo, many Bobos resist upsetting the status quo they dominate. As Brooks writes, "These are the kids who spent the crucial years between ages 16 and 24 winning the approval of their elders." They understandably believe in the rules that they have so adroitly mastered: Do your homework; get good grades; earn admission to a fancy college. Yet Thomas J. Stanley, in his blockbuster books, The Millionaire Next Door, coauthored with William D. Danko, and The Millionaire Mind, has shown an inverse correlation between conventional academic achievement and entrepreneurial success. People with high sat scores, it turns out, tend to be more risk-averse than the rest of the population.
Consider where the real innovations have come from during the last decade. Bobos may have used them, managed them, and profited from them, but they certainly didn't invent them. What fueled the Web in the mid-1990s were a few genuinely renegade, genuinely antiestablishment computer scientists and a few more artistic types who thought that what the computer scientists were doing was cool. I shudder to think how the Web would have evolved if we'd had a www.sat, or if entry into the Net economy depended on Bobo notions of "merit." Likewise, the most powerful cultural movement of the last decade — one that has deeply imprinted entertainment, fashion, and even civic life — has been hip-hop, a multibillion-dollar industry that has nothing to do with anything Bobo.
The people whom Peter Drucker called knowledge workers, Robert Reich called symbolic analysts, and David Brooks calls Bobos are today's emperors. But the sun may be setting on their reign. As knowledge and information become ubiquitous and free, as computers grow more capable of analytic work such as managing stock portfolios and making medical diagnoses, and as ever more computer programming migrates to places like India, the SAT elite may decline early in this century, much as the WASP elite withered at the end of the last one.
My guess is that in the Bobos' place will emerge a new elite composed not of knowledge workers but of artists. First came the aristocracy, an elite based on bloodline. Then came the meritocracy, an elite based on academic achievement. Next will be what I'd call an "artocracy," an elite based on mastery of visual arts, music, and drama — the sorts of things that most high-achieving Bobos in the making disdained when they were in high school in favor of advanced-placement calculus. Someday soon, the data-manipulating, Ben & Jerry's-loving baby boomer with a $15,000 slate shower will give way to the unreconciled Bohemian.
Bobo, we hardly knew ye.
Sidebar: FC Recommends
Great Read: The Second Coming of Steve Jobs, by Alan Deutschman (Broadway Books, $26). One of the keenest observers of the business and culture of Silicon Valley sets his sights on one of the most remarkable stories in the recent history of Silicon Valley.
Big Idea: Telecosm: How Infinite Bandwidth Will Revolutionize Our World, by George Gilder (The Free Press, $26). It's hard to agree with everything that Gilder says, but it's hard to disagree with the idea that anything he writes is required reading. One of the world's most influential technology futurists offers some truly big ideas.
Best Practice: Games Companies Play: The Job Hunter's Guide to Playing Smart & Winning Big in the High-Stakes Hiring Game,by Pierre Mornell (Ten Speed Press, $24.95). A very long title for a book that's full of nuggets of wisdom about the ever-escalating battle for talent.
Sidebar: Cheat Sheet
Too busy clicking your ribbed-steel Restoration Hardware flashlight to read this book? No worries. Sound smart at Starbucks with these Bobo bonbons.
Best new buzzword: "One-downsmanship." Instead of keeping up with the Joneses, true Bobos try to be slightly more casual than their neighbors. They reject snazzy status symbols in order to achieve a more cultivated brand of status.
Big thought: If Bobos "raise their sights and ask the biggest questions, they have the ability to go down in history as the class that led America into another golden age."
Career advice for aspiring business gurus: By mid-career, you "should be sitting on at least three panel discussions a month, because at the end of life the intellectual who sits on the most panels wins."
Ideal specs for the Bobo family fridge: "The refrigerator itself should be the size of a minivan stood on end. It should have at least two doors, one for the freezer section and one for the in-law suite, in case you want to rent out rooms inside."
Best advice for bobo fashionistas: Teeny, tiny, steel-framed glasses, because now it is "more prestigious to look like Franz Kafka than Paul Newman."
Worst insult a Bobo can give to business activities: "Mainstream."
Highest compliment a Bobo can give to a retail store: "Spare, so you won't think there is any salesmanship going on." Highest compliment a Bobo can give to leisure activities "Serious."
Highest compliment a Bobo can give to lesiure activities: "Serious."
A version of this article appeared in the September 2000 issue of Fast Company magazine.