Having survived its near-death experience and been found — alive! — in the rubble of the World Trade Center, yuppieness responded the way people often do after a brush with mortality: It resolved to live life to the fullest, to hold nothing back, to seize the day. And so for the past seven years we have seen yuppieness in its full materialistic, oblivious splendor. In Philly, this has taken various forms; you’ve read about many of them in this magazine — jillion-dollar condos in Center City, gigamansions (to use my colleague Amy Korman’s term) on the Main Line, sprawling private-school expansions, $100 cheesesteaks, six-figure bar mitzvahs. Together, they form a mosaic of excess that, in retrospect, seemed destined to shatter.
But yuppieness has survived economic downturns before — the 1987 market crash, the recession of the early ’90s, the tech bubble, 9/11. So is there really evidence to suggest something is different this time? That our current reluctance to spend and spend is anything but temporary? Maybe not. When I ask him if he got a lot of panicked calls from clients in October when the market was plummeting, financial adviser David Rankin says not as many as you’d think — nor as many as he wished. “People took the attitude that it would come back — maybe a little too much,” he says, adding that he believes we’re looking at a recession measured not in quarters, but years.
Still, there are signals that something is fundamentally different in this downturn, starting with the anger you hear among people singed by the fallout of yuppie behavior. “Whores!” spits an acquaintance of mine in the financial industry, when he talks about the people running Citibank, Wachovia and AIG. “I think these guys knew exactly what they were doing, and they just didn’t care.” Says another friend whose father was recently laid off — two years before the retirement he now can’t afford to take because his 401K has tanked — “I want to see someone led away in handcuffs.” And there are those who’ve been pissed off for a decade and are now enjoying a bit of schadenfreude: Good. You finally got what was coming to you. This is not the type of rage cured by a trip to the mall.
Then again, maybe those shopping excursions weren’t bringing quite as much satisfaction as we thought. “For too long, money has been the measure of success,” says former White Dog Cafe proprietor Judy Wicks, one of the strongest voices in Philadelphia’s green and buy-local movements. “But I don’t think material goods have made people happy.” What Wicks sees happening now is the birth of a new economy and new social values. “I think we’re going to see a different measure of success — one based on the quality of your life, the quality of your relationships.”
I think she’s on to something, if only because of the weariness you can’t help but sense out there these days. Maybe the most insidious aspect of yuppieness was the way it kept defining affluence upward. Just when you scored your BMW, you noticed that the really superior people were all driving Bentleys, which forced you to pencil in a few more clients to interface with. The fast track could be awfully exhausting.
THE EXECUTIVE OFFICES of Beneficial Bank at 6th and Walnut may seem like a strange place to look for the future, but that’s where I find myself one afternoon, talking with the bank’s boyish-looking CEO, Gerry Cuddy. Beneficial is Philly’s oldest bank, founded (by St. John Neumann, no less) in 1853. It’s also, as Cuddy is the first to admit, its most old-fashioned, with a business model not much more sophisticated than Jimmy Stewart’s Bailey Building & Loan in It’s A Wonderful Life. “Nobody’s more boring than we are,” Cuddy says. “We take in deposits, we lend that money out to people.” There are no interest-only, no-money-down mortgages. No derivatives. No slicing up and bundling of debt.