Wednesday, 27 January 2016

The 'Yuppie' era

One of the most easily recognisable tropes of 1980s culture is that of the Yuppie, and most particularly, we associate them with the US money market, high fashion of the time, mobile phones and cocaine.  Where do these notions of the Yuppie come from?  Are they accurate?

Few films speak to the Yuppie era in a more all-encompassing way than Wall Street.  It tells the story of Bud Fox, a young stockbroker who wants success (measured by the amount of money he has).  Fox has no scruples in how his money is made. He meets an older version of himself Gordon Gekko, a greedy, selfish user of people, and becomes his protégé.  Gekko is a corporate raider, described by as ‘An investor who seeks to take control of a publicly traded company by acquiring a controlling interest of the company's stock and then replacing the board of directors and/or the Corporate Officers.’

This film came to be synonymous with the term ‘Yuppie’ (short for “young upwardly mobile”) because the characters in it seemed to be only interested in making huge amounts of money without any conscience as to how this was achieved. Yuppies were perceived to be sharply dressed go-getters who didn’t care who they stepped on as they were on the way up nor did they care about morals and ethics.

The Yuppie Handbook by Marissa Piesman and Marilee Hartley (1984) shows the stereotypical Yuppie male and female on the front cover:

The aspirational Yuppie would wear similar clothing and carry the latest gadgetry, including later in the 80s the cellphone, which was closer to the size of a house brick than to a modern mobile telephone!

As the decade progressed those Yuppies who were the prototypes for the characters in Wall Street were having such success with their illegal activities that they became careless. A good example is that of Levine, Siegel, Boesky and Milken.

Boesky was in arbitrage, put simply this is looking out for stocks which are simultaneously listed on more than one stock exchange at different prices.  The arbitrageur would buy at the lower price while at the same time selling the same number of shares at the higher price. This is known as short selling – the stocks being sold are not actually in the ownership of the seller at the time of the sale.  (This practice was most recently memorialised in the Oscar winning film, the Wolf of Wall Street.) Boesky appeared to have amazing powers of premonition in respect of takeover potential of companies. He would buy shares of companies at rock bottom prices and they would shortly thereafter reach high prices and he would sell.

Boesky had Levine and Siegel both of whom were in mergers and acquisitions in the major banks, giving him pre-takeover information to which they were privy. He paid them for the information and they each made a great deal of money.  The carelessness set in and Boesky became involved in huge deals.  With each deal he was amazingly fortunate in buying and selling at the right time.  The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) became suspicious about the transactions.

A tipoff at one of the banks led to the discovery of Levine’s Swiss bank account.  They questioned him and he named Boesky who was then kept under surveillance.  This led to the capture of Siegel.  Milken was also under suspicion and the SEC kept watch on him and on Boesky.  As a result Milken and Boesky were given record fines and prison sentences for their crimes.

The impact of Yuppie style was definitely felt even in the UK. As a teenager in the 1980s I was greatly influenced by the Yuppie style being shown in the cinemas and on television! Even though I was still at school, I wore pin striped pencil skirts with white shirts underneath waistcoats, and had a selection of tie pins!  On other occasions I and my friends would wear jackets with enormous shoulder pads over a t-shirt and completed our pseudo-Yuppie look with essential espadrilles! This style in particular was influenced by US television series, Miami Vice, a television cop show reflecting the cocaine boom of the 1980s.

This programme closely linked business with the drugs world. The films and television programmes depicting the Yuppies of the 1980s often showed them as partying very hard and taking cocaine, snorting it using rolled up hundred dollar bills. This was accepted as a true reflection of the times although it was greatly exaggerated in films and on televison.

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