Brooks Introduces the Bobos

David Brooks.[1]2000. Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

When I have time off to read, I often read popular titles that appear interesting. What are other authors talking about? What currently interests young people? These literary excursions often prove fruitful because they reveal blind spots in my own thinking. This line of thought led me to pick up a copy of David Brooks’ Bobos in Paradise.

Introduction

What is a Bobo? What looks like child’s mistake (booboo) is actually pronounced bow-bow and it is short for bourgeois bohemian. Brooks observes: 

“Defying expectations and maybe logic, people seemed to have combined the countercultural sixties and the achieving eighties into one social ethos…people who thrive in this period are the ones who can turn ideas and emotions into products”(10).

Brooks goes on to write: “This book is a description of the ideology, manners, and morals of this elite. I start with the superficial things and work my way to the more profound.” (11) The new upper-class professionals blend the artistic aesthetic of a hippy with the business acumen of a yuppy. What makes Brooks observations so intriguing is that almost twenty years later we see Bobo characteristics showing up among mere mortals, such as myself.

Background and Organization

David Brooks is a Washington-based political columnist who has written for the New York Times, Washington Times, Wall Street Journal, and other venues. He is also a Jew married to an evangelical both of whom attend church. This brief description validates his self-identification as a Bobo, someone highly talented and inclined to seek reconciliation in all aspects of life.

Brooks writes in seven chapters:

  1. The Rise of the Educated Class
  2. Consumption
  3. Business Life
  4. Intellectual Life
  5. Pleasure
  6. Spiritual Life
  7. Politics and Beyond (v)

These chapters are preceded by an introduction and are followed by acknowledgments and an index. 

Perhaps missing from these chapters is a detailed treatment of the role of technology in empowering young professions to become fantastically wealthy in such a short period of time. Prior to the 1990s, young professionals were forced to apprentice themselves in career paths that were less glamorous and more impervious to upward mobility, except among those coming from wealthy families.

What is a Bobo?

It is interesting that Brooks begins his taxonomy of a Bobo with a chapter on consumption. Bobo consumption is driven by new-found wealth that is a windfall to the highly educated few in the information age. Brooks observes:

“[in 1980] college graduates earned roughly 35 percent more than high school graduates. Buy by the mid-1990s, college graduates were earning 70 percent more than high school graduates, and those with graduate degrees were earning 90 percent more. The wage value of a college degree had doubled in 15 years.”(36)

This sudden accumulation of wealth by highly educated professionals affords them the opportunity to engage in consumption patterns unavailable to the bohemians of prior generations.

In my own information-crunching career, I spent roughly the first 20 years automating manual processes and exploring existing databases in the offices that I worked for. In my first major automation project I more than quadrupled the output of my manager within a year and improved the quality of the work done. This led to my promotion and eventual reassignment. This theme was repeated several more times before I left research and went into finance, but those behind me did not see the same boost to their career that I got because the low hanging fruit [of automation] had been exhausted and they entered finance after the field settle down. Timing matters, which suggests that the Bobos may not beget future Bobos.

Brooks writes about the aspect of Bobo culture that he knows—political consulting—where technology is not necessarily a big factor in success.

The Spiritual Deficit in Bobo Land

Brook takes an unexpected trip to Montana to explore Bobo spirituality. A surprising number of movies have been made in Montana in recent years, like A River Runs Through Itand the Horse Whisperer (218-219). Writing about the Montana “Soul Rush” Brooks observes:

“Everybody lives somewhere, of course, but not all places have that spiritual aura that we call ‘a sense of place.’ Only places that are inhospitable to ambition have that.”(221)

Having made their fortune, Bobos start to miss aspects of life that they have neglected that drives their interest in antiques, old houses, and places like Montana that seem more real than a computer screen. 

Brooks asks: “Can you have freedom as well as roots?” (227) He goes further to ask: “Can you still worship God even if you take it upon yourself to decide that many of the Bible’s teaching are wrong?”(228) It is out of this Bobo mentality (you can always split the difference and have choices) that people say that they are spiritual, just not religious. This is spirituality without obligation( 237), a meaningless idea because our spirituality defines our priorities. If our priorities are defined elsewhere, then our spirituality is likewise defined elsewhere.

Every chance I get, I remind people in my writing that the idea of multiple paths (think Bobo choices) up the mountain is a Hindu concept, not a Christian one. When God created the universe, he stood apart from it which implies that there are no paths up the mountain to God because God exists outside the universe and we exist within it. God must come down the mountain to us and as Christians we believe that he came in the person of Jesus.

Assessment

In his book, Bobos in Paradise, David Brooks writes like a sociologist observing some remote ethic group out in the jungles of New York and other metro areas in the United States. Still, he admits to being a card-carrying Bobo himself. Needless to say, Brooks has a keen eye for detail and has written an entertaining and readable description of the educated rich in our generation. 

[1]https://www.washingtonpost.com/religion/2019/04/29/is-david-brooks-christian-or-jew-his-latest-book-traces-his-faith-his-second-marriage. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Brooks_(commentator).

Brooks Introduces the Bobos

Also see:

Thompson: Paul’s Ethics Forms Community

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