The evolution of Bobo

First came the hippie. Then there was the yuppie. Now meet their 21st-century offspring: the bobos, or 'bourgeois bohemians'. Peter York, left, the man who has spent two decades chronicling Britain's social tribes, casts an experienced eye over this new arrival
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The Independent Online

My friend, the Belgravia girl, has just bought herself a new leather chair. Correction: it's not actually new. It's Forties/Fifties and deliciously worn in - it's just new to her and it cost easily as much as a really new one. She bought it at a shop on London's King's Road called After Noah, also new to her, which is full of delicious unassuming things, things of character, things with a history - though an implied personal history, rather than the "late-Regency" chat that Old Wave antique dealers give you. All sorts of evocative things from the recent past are there, but there's no architectural sleek, and absolutely no decorator chic. It's a Third Way of interior decor. "Ooh," said my friend, "if this is yuppie, I like it."

My friend, the Belgravia girl, has just bought herself a new leather chair. Correction: it's not actually new. It's Forties/Fifties and deliciously worn in - it's just new to her and it cost easily as much as a really new one. She bought it at a shop on London's King's Road called After Noah, also new to her, which is full of delicious unassuming things, things of character, things with a history - though an implied personal history, rather than the "late-Regency" chat that Old Wave antique dealers give you. All sorts of evocative things from the recent past are there, but there's no architectural sleek, and absolutely no decorator chic. It's a Third Way of interior decor. "Ooh," said my friend, "if this is yuppie, I like it."

(There's something similar - though posher - in the look sold at the Nicole Farhi Home shop off Bond Street, a sense of found objects, happy juxtapositions and aesthetic ease. Ms Farhi is of course in private life Lady Hare, wife of the endlessly distinguished left-leaning playwright, Sir David Hare, and everything in the shop is prodigiously expensive.)

But back to After Noah. The interesting thing is that After Noah's original mother shop is in Upper Street in Islington, north London: just a whisper away from the Granita restaurant where the pre-election Blair-Brown resolution was reached (me PM, you Chancellor). After Noah started to flourish when the new young people of Islington - people originally in the caring and being worlds - started to make some money in media and the conveniently close City. All sorts of interesting combinations are hatched in Upper Street.

I had lunch in a gastropub in the same part of north London (Kentish Town, actually) a few days ago. It was opposite a Thirties factory that had been rehabilitated into units for New Enterprises, a good many of them concerned with fecundity of some kind - parents' advisory this and children's that - but all private sector. The other units were let to aspiring dot.coms. Downstairs was an atrium and a café.

On the gastropub menu were chorizo and salad leaves, blackened chicken, fishcakes and other pleasant things. All eaten at tables with zinc tops and lots of character in the wood - olive wood perhaps, the sort you get in the more delicious, civilised, unassuming, Nicole Farhi kinds of French kitchens.

But this isn't France of course, it's Kentish Town, and everyone is dressed in a very matt lineneycottoney way. To my right - cottoney-lineney girly lunch - I hear those gorgeous words "Miramax", "joint distribution", "gross" and "artistic control". To my left - another cottoney-lineney girly lunch - I hear "online strategy", "pure-play" and "second-round financing".

My lunch companion, an art-school graduate and former academic on the wilder shores of media studies, couldn't be more online if he tried. He is Britain's king of wacky e-mail addresses. His offices have both a lot of galvanised metal in them and a small lawn like a Tate Modern installation. And the business is growing at dizzying speed.

Outside the BBC, in Portland Place, I meet an old friend, a televisionist. When I first met him he was a producer of serious documentaries at Granada, after which he moved on to community arts. He was chucked out in the early-Nineties cull, setting up as an independent like everyone else. Now he's producing makeover programmes, has a provincial office, a design studio and an online division. He knows how to do sponsored products; he's learnt management-speak.

As you'll guess, I'm working my way around to Bobos. The Bobos - bourgeois bohemians, that is - first appeared in David Brooks's Bobos in Paradise, which has been on the American bestseller lists for some months now. Sub-titled "The new upper class and how they got there", Bobos has been educated New York and LA's talking-point book of the year. And all the latter-day Alistair Cookes have filed Letter from America reports. There, I knew you'd heard of it.

The central premise of Bobos is simple: that straight, mainstream bourgeois folk and alienated counterculture types have cross-bred over the last 25 years to produce a new generation of people, with a robustly bourgeois-individualist take on economics and ambitions, but a "bohemian" view of personal life, dress-codes and aesthetics.

The After Noah style and the Nicole Farhi interior look aren't so much yuppie as Bobo. As for those girls in Kentish Town, they're on the nursery slopes of the Bobo adventure.

Like Francis Fukiyama's The End of History, Boboism posits a magic resolution to the tensions in an earlier capitalist society - tensions between bourgeois business (repressed, godly, suburban, establishment Philistine) and academia (alienated, adversarial, arty). In Bobo world the artists are savvy and hugely sponsored, the academics have great consultancy practices, and the bourgeoisie are dressed-down creativity groupies who talk like Apple ads.

Business - successful third-wave, New Economy business - has taken a massive shine to all this. New Age, New Economy businesses all want to be conviction trades; in other words they all want big ideas - values - because a) it pays off and b) it makes work interesting. So we get Starbucks, with its career-hippy precepts and exhortations in the windows; we get Body Shop and Anita Roddick's interesting world view; and we get Virgin everything. Brooks's point is that Boboism now operates on a massive scale and has scaled all the commanding heights in America - the Ivy League universities, the key media operators, even the US government.

So far so delicious. Listing Bobo habits and enthusiasms is fun. Their connoisseurship of small things (coffee, olive oil, organic produce); their dedication to top-of-the-range kit, not vulgar display; their devotion to single-issue, exotic causes like the environment, Native Americans and interesting animals - all of these things make terrific spreads in the papers.

And their taboos are so interesting too. Donald Trump, for instance, is a walking taboo for Bobos, His Eighties triumphalist style - shiny suits, shiny houses and Barbie women - sets Bobo teeth on edge. It's so gross, so absolutely naff, so New Jersey high-school drop-out (Bobos are, by definition, educated, MBA'd and PhD'd to the max).

But back to dominance. The question everyone asks is: are we just talking about bread-heads - the hip capitalists of Woodstock? Brooks says absolutely not. Rather, the rise of the Bobo is about a real change in the structures and styles of business itself, a conviction that only if you work with these free spirits and declare perpetual revolution will you ever survive and prosper.

Does it apply to Britain? Absolutely. Think of Notting Hill, where the houses cost as much as Belgravia but are so much more... dressed down. Think of prime Islington, Blair country, where thoughtful barristers and broadsheet editors in 1820s terraces live so interestingly near problem-family council blocks. And then think how their style, once a little marginal with no echoes north of Watford, is reproduced in lofts on Salford Quays and terraces in gentrified Leith. Think of the rhetoric of UK dot.coms, where the business plans are still so profoundly creative.

Of course we should have seen it coming with yuppies (real, educated yuppies, that is, not estate agents and City chancers with O-levels). Yuppies believed in education and networking, interesting lives and prodigious self-development, all proto-Bobo things.

It was just that they forced themselves into the Mark 1 model of old, iron-clad capitalism because back then it was the only game in town, and it seemed to offer incredible rewards. There was something exciting and post-modern about it all, something which helped the Ivy League and Oxbridge classes of '83 try to keep a straight face while they were fast-tracked at Goldman Sachs. Now, of course, they don't have to try: hippy roots can show and boys can cry.

Everyone says the rise of the Bobo is a sign of a huge discontinuity with the Eighties, the decade of right-wing politics, shiny marble atria, nasty jobs and nastier Gordon Geckos. In this model of the world, the Eighties were vile, and the Nineties vastly more enlightened. But it's never that easy and no one arrives without baggage (more Bobo psychobabble). Since Bobos have been easily 30 years in the making, the ones in their late forties have often been hippies and yuppies first. It's evolutionary. Moving from the public to the private sector; moving from the City to dot.com country; moving from Fleet Street to arts sponsorship - all these journeys, now so common at the top, mark the 21st-century person.

The one's who've made it to the New Upper Class are usually 27-plus, with a concentration among youthful thirty- and fortysomethings. Their eagerness, their Teflon hip, their enlightened self-interest, their relentless pursuit of self-improvement and their all-round adaptability tantalise echt bohemians and bred-in-the-bone leftists. Should they wage war on Bobos as the old enemy cunningly re-styled for this century, or should they encourage them to cover that extra mile - because they could just be on the right track?

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