They’re materialists, in a spiritual sort of wayStarbucks having established a by-now-permanent foothold in Seoul, it’s only a matter of time before the first Crate & Barrel opens, so it behooves us to know why there is such a thing as Crate & Barrel. It’s because of the Bobos. David Brooks, who recently became a New York Times columnist, coined the term in this book three years ago; it hasn’t really entered the language in the States the way “yuppie” did in the ’80s, but I’m told the term has caught on in Korea.
“Bobo” is short for “bourgeois bohemian,” and by it Mr. Brooks means the affluent Americans who ― unlike earlier, showier generations of the rich ― lavish their money not on vulgar things like Porsches, but on things that help them convince themselves (and their peers) that they’re spiritual, nonmaterialistic people. “It’s decadent to spend $10,000 on an outdoor Jacuzzi, but if you’re not spending twice that on an oversized slate shower stall, it’s a sign that you probably haven’t learned to appreciate the simple rhythms of life,” he explains. Dropping $4 on a latte at Starbucks involves the same calculation, on a more accessible scale.
But being a Bobo isn’t just about consumption. Mr. Brooks maintains that this relatively new elite ― which, crucially, came of age in the ’60s and later ― meshes material ambition with that period’s allegedly free-thinking, anti-establishment, back-to-nature values in all sorts of ways. It’s why software designers at Microsoft’s Seattle headquarters dress like they’re about to go mountain climbing (because they’re rebels who aren’t bound by pinstripe-suit thinking), but it’s also why “the most prestigious professions involve artistic expression as well as big bucks. A novelist who makes $1 million a year is far more prestigious than a banker who makes $50 million.”
“Bobos in Paradise” is thoughtfully researched ― it makes an interesting case that the liberalization of college admission standards caused this phenomenon ― and brimming with sharply observed examples of the species, such as Bobo vacationers who go places where they can mingle with Third Worlders in order to come home and brag about it. Apparently, Vietnam is the Holy Grail for such people. “He’s describing his journey up the Ho Chi Minh Trail or the rail trip from Hue on the crowded non-air-conditioned train. He starts describing all the odd glories of North Vietnam, the aroma of camphor, the flurry of bicycles. Suddenly you realize you are in a quagmire. There will be much suffering. There is no way now to withdraw from the conversation with honor.”
Bobos in Paradise
by David Brooks
22,050 won at
Kyobo Book Center
by David Moll