America's tastes evolve, but who designs paradise?

The Argument

Top-scale trendiness is entertaining to identify--but the U.S. population is a lot more complicate than trends suggest.

May 14, 2000|By Clare McHugh | Clare McHugh,Special to the Sun

Much is being made of a new and very funny book titled "Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There," a light piece of social commentary by Weekly Standard senior editor David Brooks (Simon & Schuster, 284 pages, $25). The author's basic premise is that wealthy baby boomers have managed to combine the values of the Sixties counterculture with the spirit of Eighties acquisitiveness to create a well-heeled and ostensibly well-intentioned lifestyle that includes drinking lots of espresso, buying artfully distressed wood tables and worrying about the world's dispossessed while driving around posh suburban streets in all-terrain vehicles that wouldn't be out of place in the African bush.

The book has many merits, but it's worth pointing out that its reviewers found themselves in the same curious position as author Brooks. He and they are exactly the people he's sending up in this anthropological account of the elite who want it both ways -- a group Brooks christens the Bourgeois Bohemians, Bobos for short. Lost amid the chattering class' enthusiasm for this work of self-flagellation is an appreciation of how little it reveals about America today.

Although "Bobos in Paradise" tells you something about what a small, privileged group likes and buys, and much about its hypocrisies and various pretensions (socially conscious toothpaste, educational toy stores), it does less than nothing to further one's comprehension of the cultural changes really going on in our country. In fact, it encourages the kind of parochial thinking represented in the famous Saul Steinberg New Yorker cover of a Gothamite's view of the world, where anything on the other side of the Hudson is pretty much non-existent.

The truth is mass culture has shattered into little pieces -- niches, as the marketers say. Americans are living not in a nation with a dominant ethos, but in one with dozens of distinct sub-groups, each with its own frame of references, aspirations and tastes. In this environment, the peculiarities of one tiny group don't add up to much, even if that group is moneyed, well-educated and includes many of the individuals that edit and write for national publications.

It's indicative of their self-absorption that those lampooned in "Bobos" would embrace the book as an important social statement, rather than an insider's look at the privileged ghetto in which he lives. How else to explain the article in the May issue of George magazine that declared Brooks' book a "razor sharp analysis of modern society"? Or maybe it's the retail environment that's fooling these smart people into thinking American culture hasn't broken into dozens of mini-cultures.

As Tom Wolfe pointed out so aptly in his recent novel "A Man in Full" (Bantam Books, 787 pages, $9.95), driving along the main drags in this country, you can only tell you've reached a new town when the chains like the Gap, and McDonald's and Home Depot start repeating themselves.

No doubt there is a distressing sameness in the American landscape, but underneath lies a splintered nation. Leave it to marketers, people who must for their livelihood keep up with how people actually live and what they like, to understand this point first and best. In a fascinating new book, "The Clustered World: How We Live, What We Buy and What It All Means" (Little Brown, 384 pages, $29.95) author Michael J. Weiss takes the sophisticated market research first undertaken by Claritas Inc. of Arlington, Va. (which has been widely embraced in the business world), and uses it to describe the United States in all its intimidating variety. This is the book of social analysis that the media elite should be rushing out to buy -- it can help them reach their audience(s), and it can show them their place in the vast panoply of modern-day America.

According to the Claritas analysis, Americans live in 62 "clusters." (That's a 55 percent increase over the 40 clusters in the U.S. during the '70s and '80s.) Your zip code determines what cluster you belong to, and each cluster contains hundreds of zip codes around the country.

For example, America's richest cluster, dubbed "Blue Blood Estates" includes Potomac, Md. (20854), Saddle River, N.J. (07458), Winnetka, Ill. (60093), Old Westbury, N.Y (11568) and Rolling Hills, Cal. (90274). Blue Blood Estates clusters represent .8 percent of U.S. households, have a median income of $113,000 -- one in 10 residents is a millionaire -- and own homes worth on average $452,000.

More impressive than the mere statistics is the information contained in Weiss' short essays on each lifestyle. Blue Bloods are far more likely than most Americans to go to the theater, play tennis or shop at Price Club (if you've got money, you don't like to waste it on paper towels.) They are also far less likely than their fellow citizens to eat at Burger King, own power tools, visit a chiropractor or go freshwater fishing.

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