The Death of the Yuppie. (Finally.)

How conspicuous consumption in Philadelphia suddenly got gauche

HOW TOUGH IS it out there? Tough enough that at Chestnut Hill’s privileged Springside School, the moms at pickup aren’t holding back about how much they’re cutting back.

“We decided not to go to Aruba for the holidays,” one mother was overheard saying in early December. “With the recession, we didn’t think it would look good.”

I am hearing this, admittedly secondhand, from my friend Connie, herself a Springside mom, as we talk one afternoon about the economic downturn — or, more accurately, about the fallout of the economic downturn. Connie and her husband, Dave, are looking for ways to trim their budget, as are my wife and I, as is just about every family we know.

The belt-tighteners actually seem to fall into three categories. First are those who are doing it out of necessity — who’ve been laid off from their jobs or whose businesses are suddenly reeling. “We know a lot more people affected by this recession than the last one in the early ’90s,” says Connie. “Dave thinks it’s because the last time, most of our friends were W-2 employees — they were just getting salaries. Now most of the people we know either own their own businesses or are running a business.”

The second group of belt-tighteners are those people who are peering nervously over the edge of the cliff, staring down at what’s left of their 401Ks and college savings funds. The weekly paycheck may be the same, but suddenly serving hamburger instead of Kobe seems like a pretty smart idea.

Finally — and to me, most intriguing — there are the people like the Springside woman who’s giving new meaning to the term “stay-at-home mom.” They’ve taken their foot off the consumption gas pedal not out of necessity or anxiety, but simply because something in the air tells them they should.

What an odd, interesting phenomenon, I can’t help thinking after my conversation with Connie. The well-to-do, who’ve defined and shaped life in Philadelphia for more than a quarter-century, are suddenly doing their damnedest to cut back with the Joneses.

LOOK AROUND PHILLY these days and you’ll see evidence of the downturn everywhere: Center City law firms letting loose not just administrative assistants, but associates and partners, too. Houses sitting on the market for month after month after month. Retailers from King of Prussia to Walnut Street to Cherry Hill slashing prices, hoping to entice anyone — anyone! — into pulling out a credit card and buying something.

And yet the biggest casualty of all in this, the Great Recession, may be one that’s tough to see with the naked eye: the me-first, embrace-the-Good-Life, success-at-all-costs, you-are-what-you-buy ethos that has defined life in Philadelphia, and pretty much every other major American city, for the past 25 years. In short: The long, label-loving reign of the yuppie — a tribe of people born right here in Philly (more on that later) — may finally be coming to an end.