Bobos In Paradise

A little more than a year ago I wrote a column entitled, “Whatever Happened to Elegance?” In it, I decried what Letitia Baldridge, White House social secretary for Jacqueline Kennedy, labeled the “slobbing of America.” I also raised the question as to whether there was a connection between the then currently popular sloppy dress habits of so many and their personal discipline in work habits and lifestyle.

At about the same time, I read about a new book featured in the Washington Post, entitled, “Bobos in Paradise.” My immediate reaction was: “Wow! Maybe one of my relatives or perhaps a heretofore unknown ancestor stumbled upon a mother lode and struck it rich!”

My second thought was that instead, the author, David Brooks, was making reference to the biblical description of paradise and how my folks got there. A more sobering thought, to say the least. At any rate, I was overcome with curiosity and went right out and bought the book–the last one in stock at a local bookstore. I could hardly wait to read about this commentary on my family.

But, alas, it wasnt about my people at all. Rather, in a way, it was, among other things, an observation about the change in our culture that produced such things as sloppy dress. Early on in the book, Brooks makes the point that formerly there were two main subcultures in our society–the Bohemians and the Bourgeois.

The Bourgeois worked for corporations, wore gray and went to church. The Bohemians were artists and intellectuals and championed the values of the liberated 60s, while the Bourgeois were becoming the yuppies of the 80s. As Brooks points out, the distinction between them was clear and you could easily tell them apart.

But now, this has all changed and they are all mixed up in a way that their differences have become blurred. This merging of cultures has produced what Brooks calls “Bobo values.” The label derives from the use of the first two letters (BO) of Bohemian and Bourgeois.

David Brooks returned to the U.S. after a 5-year stint overseas and was struck by the contrast in the society he had left and the one to which he returned. Sometimes, when change is happening around you, it is so subtle you dont notice it. No doubt his 5-year hiatus sharpened his perspective on what had happened to us.

Brooks believes that the Bobos have reconciled some of the anti-establishment attitudes of the 60s with achievers of the money-happy 80s. Now the CEO of a major corporation shows up at work wearing Dockers and a blazer rather than a dark suit. “If you dont dress down on Friday, you wont make it to the top” has become a mantra for those looking for success.

“Bobos in Paradise” covers the political and other lifestyle changes of what he calls the elite or upper class, but for purposes of this article, he did explain in part, our sudden devotion to sloppiness.

But another event occurred at about the time Brookss book was released. This was the moment tech stocks began their plunge, which ultimately wiped out over $5 trillion of equity value. Much of this loss was centered in companies headed by the same people who led us into the “slobbing of America.” And so, today, another cultural change appears to be on the way. The clamor in business today can be described as the search for credibility. Wearing hiking boots and glacier glasses to work may make a statement–but it is not likely to be about your credibility.

USA Today, in a recent article, said that after a 15-year decline, suits are returning to Wall Street. Investment bankers are in hopes that proper attire will boost their credibility, according to the article. The techies of Silicon Valley and elsewhere are no longer the icons to be emulated.

Arnie Parnes, in an article for The New York Times, wrote: “As the economy sours they are discovering an old economy truism. Formal dress often makes a better impression on the people who matter most in their careers: customers and bosses. Managers view casual dress as a failed experiment–it fosters laziness rather than creativity.”

“A poll by Jackson Lavis (a national employment firm), found that 44% of human resources managers said that casual attire contributed to employee tardiness and absenteeism,” again according to Parnes.

There have been a number of articles with a similar theme that I have read, and without exception, they have made the point that dressing up instead of down is a move to safeguard job security during an economic downturn.

I believe there is a good lesson for us in all this. The products we sell and the problems we solve all deal with the future, which is largely unknown. There is perhaps no time when credibility is more important than when leading someone through the perils that their particular future may hold. Following the lead of Hollywood types and high-tech folks that flaunt conventions does have a price and I, for one, do not believe it is worth it.

Brookss book helps explain how we lost elegance in our lives. But the realities of the marketplace may very well help us to rediscover it.


Reproduced from National Underwriter Life & Health/Financial Services Edition, July 27, 2001. Copyright 2001 by The National Underwriter Company in the serial publication. All rights reserved.Copyright in this article as an independent work may be held by the author.


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