Do we really need Yuppies?
By John Silveira
Issue #80 • March/April, 2003
Yuppies: they’re the folks we love to hate. Snobs and show-offs, the whole bunch of them. They’re the first on your block with cell phones, 2.5 GHz PCs, Segway scooters, Palm Pilots… What purpose or benefit do these people, who run out and suck up the latest fad toys, serve? The world would be a whole lot better off without them. Right?
Wrong. Without them we’d still be in the Dark Ages.
Am I kidding?
What if I told you the rise of modern western civilization can be attributed to the Yuppies of the 15th century? It was the middle class, what was then the merchant class, that drove the Renaissance and the Age of Discovery. They were the Yuppies of their time. Before the rise of that class, which started in Italy and spread throughout Europe, there was little nonreligious art and literature, even less in the way of science and technology, and almost no trade between Europe and the rest of the world. Because there was no trade, there were almost no spices, tea, or anything else Europeans couldn’t produce for themselves. Only the Church, royalty, and the nobility had money to buy anything and there were very few of them—certainly not enough to support artists, research, or prosperous trade routes. There were too few to pay for these goods. So tea and silk stayed in China. Spice stayed in the East Indies. Most of the would-be Rembrandts, Mozarts, and Dantes had no one to whom they could sell their wares and were consigned to their plows, or chopping wood, or herding sheep. How many geniuses were lost to humanity because there was no one there to pay them for what they could have done best?
It was after the first Yuppies emerged in Europe that the printing press with movable type came along. It was used to print and sell books, including the Bible, to others in this rising middle class. It was because this middle class kept the printing presses busy that, ultimately, poor folks could afford a family Bible, or the works of Milton, or their own copy of Shakespeare. Before that, there were no books except in the Church, and therefore, almost no literacy. Until that time books had been laboriously copied by hand making their costs so prohibitive that only the rich could own them. Had it not been for the Yuppies of their day, almost all of us would be illiterate because the printing press would have rusted away in Gutenberg’s barn, its production unsold and unused.
And it’s been Yuppies driving progress ever since. In the century we just bade goodbye, it was the Yuppies of their generations who ensured that the rest of us would one day afford cars, televisions, computers, telephones, air travel, and all the other things that are hallmarks of our times.
If Yuppies and Yuppie-like consumers hadn’t bought products and services like these when they were first introduced and still expensive, most, if not all, would have died like unripened fruit on the vine.
Sure, there were tinkerers who would have bought them. And some would be the domain of other large businesses or the rich, as with mainframe computers and yachts. But just as with PCs, geeks and businesses buying them wasn’t enough. It takes Yuppies, buying en masse and waiting in line to buy each new generation of faster computer with more storage and better graphics to create a market that eventually brought the prices of PCs down, drove the quality up, and made them mainstream. Without Yuppies, the computer on my desk simply wouldn’t be there. Cell phones would be all but nonexistent.
One of the reasons many poorer countries have problems tapping their native geniuses and creating new, affordable products to bring to market is that they don’t have a Yuppie class that nurtures that genius or supports the producers at a time when products are new, primitive, and expensive to produce. In the 1930s Stalin, then dictator of the Soviet Union, invited Henry Ford to come to Moscow. He asked Ford to give him some advice on how to build the fleets of trucks and farm equipment the Soviets needed to march into the 20th century. Ford gave the old Ruskie the secret to building an empire with which he could have conquered the world. He told Stalin to build cars first and turn the Soviet Union into a nation of drivers. Of course, the only way to sell the first cars off the assembly line would have been to sell them to…you guessed it, the Soviets would have had to build a Yuppie class, first. It wasn’t the communist way. The Evil Empire fell further and further behind the West until now it has crumbled—because it did not coddle its Yuppies.
I imagine that when the first of our ancestors climbed out of the trees to hunt on the ground, or skinned an animal and wore its fur to keep warm, or said, “I’m sick of sleeping in the rain,” and built a hut, it was the Yuppies of their day who said, “Wow, what are you doing there?” and next thing you know, they—we—were all doing it.
Just recently, it was Yuppies flocking to the Internet who fueled Internet service providers so we could all get on. And it is they who are fueling what is going to be the next great economic boom when e-commerce takes off. When they’re done there, stand back, because the Yuppies will be, as always, somewhere else, spending their money and dragging the rest of us, kicking and screaming, into the future.
So, give the Yuppies a break. For centuries they’ve supported genius and innovation while the rest of us stood back and watched—and waited—until it was safe to jump in. Without them the rest of us would still be living in caves.