Volume 1 Number 10
Young, Upwardly-Mobile and Still Looking
01 June 1988

What is relatively new is the person in his or her early twenties with no inherited wealth and sometimes no degree, who can earn a six-figure salary within two or three years of starting work. What has wrought this change?
The Yuppy is the spirit of the age,' asserted a British newspaper.
Whether or not you agree, these colourful young go-getters have hogged a large share of the headlines both before and since the stock market crash of October 1987.

The term `yuppy', first coined in New York in 1983, is interpreted in a wide variety of ways. But the basics are clear: young, up-and-coming, urban, certainly professional - and undoubtedly rich.

Wealthy young people are no new phenomenon. What is relatively new is the person in his or her early twenties with no inherited wealth and sometimes no degree, who can earn a six-figure salary within two or three years of starting work. What has wrought this change?

The answer may differ from country to country, but one underlying cause is clear. Throughout much of the Western world there has been a swing away from centralization and regulation, towards individualism and market forces.

Take Britain for example. `One of Mrs Thatcher's greatest "achievements",' says Simon Stevens, recent President of Oxford University's prestigious student Union Society, `has been the legitimization of the yuppies' aspirations for self-gain.' If you see the free market as morally superior to any other in terms of releasing individuals' abilities, `then you say, "Yes, if you can get the money for doing it then go ahead and don't be ashamed of spending the money - those are legitimate goals for you to have."'

In the eyes of many, the words of Michael Douglas in the film Wall Street summed up this attitude: `Greed is good.'

Not everyone will go with this analysis. But in the City of London, one of the world's financial capitals, the deregulation of the Stock Exchange in October 1986 (known as the `Big Bang') dramatically changed the situation. Young, ambitious, able financial dealers suddenly discovered that the sky was the limit in terms of reward, if you were prepared to work hard and risk everything.

Work hard they certainly do. Jane Hamilton, an investment banker on New York's Wall Street, describes 110-hour weeks as not unusual in her job. The main London City BMW dealer reports that `people want to drop in their cars for service at four or five in the morning before starting work, and we could stay open until almost any time'.

Many find the long hours intensely exciting. For others, they are a brutal necessity; ever-increasing spending compels everhigher borrowing and unending work to keep up the repayments. One dissatisfied financial manager was asked why he didn't move on. `You don't understand,' he replied. `The wife expects a new Jaguar every year, and the three houses aren't paid for yet.'

The risks are enormous. `On an average day,' says David Helps, a foreign exchange dealer, `literally millions of dollars pass through my hands. At first you get a kick out of it. But think of how much a mistake could cost you!'

Many thrive on this pressure. Horse-racing is popular with City people, says David Banks, a trader with a large Japanese bank, because it provides an outlet for risk-taking after the excitement of the week. `At weekends I need something to get the adrenalin flowing, or else I'll drop off,' he says without even a trace of a smile.

High-paid financial jobs often do not offer great job security. `I've only got to walk in tomorrow morning and lose a million,' says Helps, `and I haven't got a job any more.'

After October's crash, Salomon Inc, one of Wall Street's premier investment banks, sacked 800 of its staff in one week. The crash accelerated the pace of redundancies which many feel were coming anyway. As one high level Wall Street executive remarked, `We weren't immune from a fundamental truth: anything that seems too good to be true, is.'

'Working in finance is not necessarily a career,' says Banks, `but a short-term plan. Many people are burnt out by the age of 35.' For some this is part of the appeal of the job. Not untypical is the Harvard graduate who went into investment banking in order to finance his real ambition - starting his own newspaper in Wyoming.

What drives people who work so hard and take such risks? Money is clearly one prime motivator. `People would never admit to living for money,' says Richard Birchall, a successful young surveyor. `But some people judge their success totally according to the salary they have earned that year.'

Twenty years ago around 40 per cent of US college freshmen told pollsters that it was important to them to be very well off financially, while around 80 per cent listed developing a meaningful philosophy of life as an important objective. But by 1986 the numbers had reversed. In Britain a poll of 15 to 25-year olds placed money before both friendship and love in what 'makes happiness'.

`Money becomes a way of defining who you are by what you have,' writes Myron Magnet in Fortune magazine. `The money society has expanded to fill the vacuum left after the institutions that embodied and nourished those values - community, religion, school, university and especially family - sagged or collapsed... Says Dee Hock, former chief of the Visa bank-card operation: "It's not that people value money more but that they value everything else so much less - not that they are more greedy, but that they have no other values to keep greed in check."'

The trouble with money is that `the more you have the more you want', asserts Peter Vickers, 28-year-old director of a manufacturing firm in England. `It's devastating to discover that in oneself. John D Rockefeller once put it nicely when asked how much money is enough. "Just a little more," was his reply.'
The stock market crash has made many ask basic questions. `We are all having second thoughts about where our greed is taking us,' says one Harvard graduate.

`Rarely do I have the time,' admits a Frankfurt investment banker, 'to think that the business in millions done on my telex represents the productivity of thousands of workers.'

Some are opting out of a system they see as inequitable and unsatisfying. A City saleswoman has given up her £100,000 salary and her £300,000 house to go and work for Mother Teresa in the slums of Calcutta.

In February Wall Street was shaken by an unusual `scandal': Andrew Krieger, a 31year-old currency trader who made $3 million in 1987, resigned from his job. His long hours, he says, interfered with his family life and left him with an empty feeling. The final straw was when his six-year-old son asked him, `Daddy, when are you going to do something that helps people?'

A young English executive with a major American bank, let's call him Bob, describes achievement as `a kind of carrot in front of you that you can never actually get hold of'.

In a sense, he adds, that's what kept him going, but it also led to a nervous breakdown. `For a long time I hadn't been satisfied,' he explains. `All around you there is a mad rush to get into the best company, to get yourself the best package of salary, mortgage, this, that and the other - to achieve this shortrun bonanza. But I said to myself, "My salary cheque looks large enough; why aren't I enjoying myself?"

`I couldn't admit to myself that I was heading for a breakdown. I had a flat, I had a portfolio of friends just like I had a portfolio of savings. It looked dandy but it wasn't based on anything. I was looking for something much more solid.'

During the months of recovery from his breakdown, Bob thought far more deeply about his life. He began to discover the value of friends, and to find a faith in God - and a belief that God had a purpose for him. He has gone back into banking. `I still don't know why, or what will come of it, but I am convinced it is the right thing to do.'

After graduating from Oxford University, Michael Rundell earned large salaries for five years on Middle East oil rigs. Having money was a new experience for him - his parents worked without salary because of their Christian vocation. Indeed one of the reasons he took his Middle East job was to provide adequately for them during his mother's terminal illness. `I'm incredibly lucky to have been brought up to realize that some things are worth it and some things aren't,' he says. `The faith my parents had that things would continue being all right although they had no money, is a remarkable gift to me - much more than having money would have been.'

Now that Rundell does have money, he has converted a derelict health club into an art studio. Its design on three open levels, incorporating bed and kitchen, bears witness to an imaginative talent. Art is his great love in life. `Painting is positive and creative and important. It's important to leave something behind, a step further than when you arrived. Or it may just be a deep-down longing not to be forgotten.'

`Quit or be fired'
Energy and love of challenges - qualities which Rundell seems to have in abundance - are prime characteristics of the successful young people of the Eighties. The desire to accomplish something big is for many a deeper driving force than the search for material reward. `I have a friend who is running a successful department in a big insurance firm,' says Richard Birchall. `He's also responsible for a multi-million pound residential development project - and he's doing that when he comes home in the evening!'

Birchall is inclined that way himself. `It's exciting when the phone rings with a request; and you go and do it and get paid a reasonable rate. You feel alive; you want to get up in the morning. I got home from the office at 10.30 last night, having started at 8 am. But I enjoyed every minute, and only went to bed because I knew that if I didn't I wouldn't be working this morning!'

How could this love of challenge - so common in young people of all abilities - best be put to use? And for what greater goals?

`What is needed is not a change of job, but a change of heart,' says one Harvard graduate. `Young professionals are meant to become the ethical as well as the financial leaders of our time.'

`Anne' has been trying this out on Wall Street. `After the crash my boss was fired,' she tells. `My supervisor asked me to lie about the financial commitments my boss had made before the crash. Because I believe in honest dealing, I refused. My supervisor insisted. I also felt pressure from myself: lying would have been best for business and would have made me appear successful to my colleagues. I decided to speak with one of the higherups. I told him that I was committed to the firm, but that I refused to lie on its behalf. I would do anything - transfer to another city, whatever - but not lie. Finally they called off the dogs and I started to work on other projects. The hardest thing about the fiasco was facing a potential "quit or be fired" situation. I am not a quitter.'

Poh Lian Lim from Malaysia studied at Harvard. Now at Columbia University Medical School in New York, she is facing a hard decision. `Some people have been encouraging me to apply for US citizenship,' she says.

`I could practise medicine in this country and lead the good life. But I know that I wouldn't be happy settling for that.' Instead she plans to return to Malaysia where doctors are in short supply. While in New York she works voluntarily at a shelter for the homeless.

Like Poh Lian, Simon Stevens has found the scale of challenge he is looking for in a concept of service to society. He is spending a year in Guyana advising its rubber corporation -`giving back something of what I've received in three years' university education'. On his return, he will be going into management of the British National Health Service, not a high-paid position by the standards he could expect. `For me it wasn't particularly difficult to resist the temptations that some see in jobs like the City. I really couldn't do a job unless I thought the end product - not only of what I was doing but of the whole enterprise with which I was concerned - was actually worthwhile.'

`People want to do good,' says Michael Rundell, `they're just awfully short on knowing how to do it.'

Michael's brother Peter works in Britain's Overseas Development Administration. `I'm lucky to be in a job which has its own meaning, rather than having to find meaning in a job which doesn't necessarily have it,' he points out. But the career choice was costly. After an Oxford BA and MSc, he gave up the offer of a PhD place at Cambridge in order to do voluntary service in Brazil. There he acquired a burning conviction to do something about the relationship between the rich and poor worlds. `That's the big calling into which all the little bits fit.' On his return to Britain he was offered, and accepted, a PhD place at London University. He then went for a job in overseas aid. `I could have got a 50 per cent higher salary elsewhere without pushing my luck at all. It sounds a lot to give up, but I didn't need more than I needed.

Exploited by ambition
`A yuppy friend said to me that not only do yuppies exploit society but society exploits yuppies. I'm not convinced it's true. I think it's our ambition that exploits us rather than society.'

Rundell considers that economic progress in Britain is being achieved by people working longer and longer hours, particularly at the professional level. `I'm not sure that kind of increased efficiency is beneficial to the economy - and it's certainly not beneficial to the individuals involved. The company doesn't pay for the costs to the marriages that break up. It certainly doesn't pay for the health costs of the guys who get the ulcers.' Rather than stay on late at the office, he brings work home with him to finish after putting his children to bed.

David Helps shares this commitment to family life. `If I'd tried to go for a higher paid job, my marriage would have suffered.'

Will Elliott, like Rundell, works in overseas aid -with the American programme in southern Africa. `I chose to work in this field,' he explains, `because it offered a framework in which to build bridges with other nationalities. An MBA degree doesn't foster an attitude of service but rather gives a sense that the world owes one a living. When held up against the vast needs of the world, my motives, attitudes and lifestyle seemed small, out-of-date and on a dead-end track for myself and my country. And the notion that God has a plan for each person attracted me. I started asking myself how I would spend my time, energy and salary in a way which was greater than just my own needs.

`A commitment to development work has meant a financial sacrifice because it has closed many options which could have led to faster advancement in more lucrative fields. This does not mean to say that I am poor - far from it - but my motive has not been to seek the highest paying job.'

What makes Elliott tick? 'It's partly the notion of living to bring the best out of others. And the belief that God can stir the hearts of individuals to solve the problems of human division. Some might refer to this as optimism or hope springing eternal. But I do try to search for solutions rather than being mired in the problems. The cost of doing nothing is too great.'

The yuppies have come in for quite a hammering, intensified by the stock market crash. `They had it coming to them!' exulted the media. 'Thank goodness the monstrous horde had only a year of glory before its demise!' Having elevated the yuppy to star status in the first place, it took `unbecoming pleasure in treading on the fallen yuppies with their own loafers, so to speak'- in the words of one American columnist.

But some see through the hypocrisy. `If one is to believe their suddenly moralizing elders on Wall Street and in business schools,' writes Melvin Maddocks in The Boston Globe, ‘the yuppies inherited a pure souled, ascetic American culture and corrupted it by setting up money as the new - new! - standard of success, thus inventing greed.... It is far too guileless of us to cast the yuppy as whipping boy, asking with hypocritical innocence: Where did the little monster get all those crazy ideas about the almighty dollar, and quick and easy ways to grab it? Where indeed?'

In a forthright piece in Cosmopolitan, Nilgin Yusuf describes herself as `one of life's winners'. She goes on, `We winners see everything in isolation. We don't connect the rise in unemployment with rising crime. We can't see that vicious muggers, robbers who raid banks and women who sell their bodies are operating their lives on exactly the same principle as us: looking after themselves as best they can.

`It's inconceivable that the freedom carefully handed to us by self-sacrificing past generations should be taken and smashed, reduced into this absurd contemporary notion of freedom. The freedom to forget everyone but ourselves. The freedom to shrug off responsibilities. We have forgotten the value of interdependence, of helping each other, and are due to suffer the consequences.'

`The heart of the debate about the yuppy philosophy is still the question of what kind of society we want,' believes Peter Vickers. `And - how am I prepared to live myself? What is needed is people who have a commitment to "thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth": people who accept responsibility to take on some of the great issues which will have to be tackled if that vision is to be accomplished.

`Some of us may be called to get involved with the technicalities of the issues. Others may be called to generate the political will that makes significant changes possible. What is clear is that we will have to work together. It will be not less than a life-long commitment. But if even a few of us make that commitment and hold to it, we could see real changes in our lifetime. In the end it boils down to the question of whether I am living for myself, or whether my life is at God's disposal and at the disposal of the rest of humanity.

`It requires bigness of thinking, yes, but more important a bigness of heart.'

Unless stated otherwise, all content on this site falls under the terms of the Creative Commons Licence 3.0