From the August 16, 1982 issue of New York Magazine.
Mark and Alison Kramer* used to spend their Sunday mornings at home, nestled up with a calculator, the New York Times real-estate section, and smoked salmon from one of the shops near Columbia University. They had sincere, if naïve, hopes of finding a co-op or condominium within their price range. As an associate professor with tenure, a plum job for anyone who earned a Ph.D. in the humanities in the sixties, Kramer has a modest but secure income. His wife, one of those smartly dressed M.B.A.’s several years out of school, is a middle-level manager at Morgan Guaranty. Although her salary probably won’t increase too much—there are so many business-school graduates bunched up in middle management—it has now reached $35,000. Together, the Kramers’ $70,000 income puts them squarely in the comfortable middle class, but it hardly conveys affluence. In fact, it doesn’t allow them even to own their own home.
“The idea that I’m boxed into a four-room apartment because our income won’t cover some hole on West End Avenue is ridiculous,” says Kramer, losing, for the moment, his scholarly cool. “I wouldn’t even want the kind of house we can’t afford.” What infuriates him is not merely the housing crisis but the fact that so many of the amenities that seemed almost a birthright when he was growing up now appear to be out of reach.
“My father sent us to private school and summer camp. We lived in a large seven- or eight-room apartment and had a cottage in the country. I had everything I wanted, and we were hardly rich. I don’t see how we’ll ever be able to do the same for our kids.” Of course, Kramer’s past wasn’t that luxurious—except perhaps in retrospect—and his present is far from desperate. With his Honeywell Pentax camera, his video recorder, and his I.B.M. Selectric (Alison has her own), and with a legacy of sixties social consciousness, he’s not about to cry pauper. “I’m not saying we’re pressed or even badly off,” he says. “It’s just relative. My parents had an expansive mentality. I feel like I’m running up against limits, frozen out of things. It may not actually have been that way, but as a kid I felt we were totally financially secure, that there was a lot of money and that if you wanted something it could be had. I never once heard, ‘Gee, I really can’t afford to do this.’ The first time I heard it was when I said it.”
The economic realities of adult life have come as a rude surprise to Mark and Alison Kramer and many others whose childhoods coincided with the great boom time of the fifties. A house, a car, staples of middle-class life, now seem like luxuries. The mention of a large suburban backyard is likely to evoke the same nostalgia from people in Manhattan as madeleines did for Proust in Remembrance of Things Past.
Growing up in the fifties, the assumption for most people was that they would equal or do better than their parents. Upward mobility was an immutable fact of American life. Since 1890, every group of Americans had done better than the one before it, and at a faster rate. That’s no longer so. “There’s still upward mobility, but the rate appears to be leveling off,” says Robert Hauser, professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin. The plateauing is so strong, in fact, that the 1980 U.S. budget warned, “The baby boom generation may never achieve the relative economic success of the generations immediately preceding it or following it.”
Yet, despite that gloomy prophecy, the “nouveau pauvre,” as they have been called, are not at all poor. They live well—dining out often, cooking three-star meals, going to museums, and occupying well-appointed, if small, apartments. They attended college, but they did not have to work their way through. Compared with the blue-collar unemployed in sunset industries and the chronically poor of this country, the young members of the middle class clearly are not deprived. Still, given their incomes, they live less well than they might have expected, because in many ways those incomes are an illusion.
“If anyone would have told us we’d be earning $60,000 a year, I would’ve thought we’d be living like millionaires,” says Susan Beltzer, whose husband is a Manhattan lawyer. “That’s not true.” Sustained inflation means that to have the same buying power today that one’s parents enjoyed 30 years ago, one would have to make more than three times as much. And the tax bite on that inflated income, given its higher bracket, is much greater. Worse, the cost of housing has soared, and that, combined with high interest rates, has made it impossible for most in the baby-boom generation to afford the houses they grew up in.
Part of the reason the young middle class feels deprived is perceptual. “When you’re at the bottom, you can fantasize,” says Columbia sociologist Herbert Gans. “The closer you get to the top, the more realistic you get. You see it’s that much harder.” But more of it has to do with the expectations parents in the fifties—survivors of the Depression and, in some cases, children of immigrants—imposed on their children. Members of the baby-boom generation were taught to appreciate the good life—the arts, books, good clothing, travel—and grew accustomed to it during a mass prolonged adolescence in which marriage and childbirth were delayed until after the magic age of 30.
“There was a basic shift in consumption patterns,” says Joseph Bensman, professor of sociology at City College and the City University Graduate Center. “They had a longer period in which to invest in short-term-pleasure items.” Consequently, when the “Me Decade” had to start thinking about “Us,” things like household budgets made their unwelcome entrance. At the same time, a stagnant economy made even ordinary amenities seem out of reach. “I find myself dreaming of a foyer, a second bathroom,” says Jonathon Erdman, a movie executive who makes an appreciably better living than his father did as a tailor.
Perhaps it’s unfair to compare what people in their twenties and thirties make with what their parents made at their peak earning capacity, but as the economy worsens, there’s less faith in America’s economic prospects in the world, less hope among the young middle class that the future will close the gap between them and their parents. “The optimism of the fifties and sixties is gone,” says Paul Blumberg, professor of sociology at Queens College. “People don’t have as much confidence as they once did.” And Dr. Nathan Stockhamer, director of clinical services at the William Alanson White Institute, says, “People in their twenties and thirties no longer have that feeling of unlimited possibility.” The economic frontier is closing fast on those who are least prepared to deal with it.
“… Inflation, soaring housing costs, and the sheer size of this generation have lessened its prospects …”
In the 1956 movie The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, Gregory Peck is lured into advertising with the prospect of earning $8,000 to $9,000 a year. A few years later, Lawrence Price’s father made about twice that as a TV director. He and his family lived in a cavernous Central Park West apartment. They owned a modest house away from the beach on Fire Island and in 1965 bought an oceanfront home for what it would now cost to rent one. Price attended Collegiate School, then Harvard for his bachelor’s degree and Columbia for his degree in law. His wife, Kate, grew up in Larchmont in a relatively small house her father had bought with the comfortable but hardly imposing income he earned from his medium-size plastics firm. Her parents recently sold that house and—with the handsome profit that everyone who purchased a house in the fifties earned—bought a place in Southampton.
That’s where the Prices spend their weekends now. A second house is not on their list of priorities, since they are still trying to figure out how to buy a first. “A second home was something a middle-class person could afford back then,” says Price. “For us, the choice is renting in the city and buying a summer place or buying in the city, not both.”
Price is a lawyer whose income over the last five years averaged $70,000. He and his wife, who is going back to school for a master’s in fine arts, are swimming in degrees but are not convinced that they’ll end up living as comfortably as their parents did. They have costs their parents never had, chiefly those of sending two girls to Brearley. “What I pay in tuition substantially exceeds the aftertax income my father earned when I was at Harvard,” Price says.
Admittedly, certain economies are inconceivable to the Prices, but as they contemplate moving from their West Side apartment to a condominium big enough for a family of four they confront choices they hadn’t anticipated. “There’s always the alternative of moving to Westchester, but I don’t relish being a prisoner of Conrail,” Price says. For people who grew up watching the man in the gray flannel suit on his endless commute, that’s not an option.
People who came of age in the forties and fifties enjoyed the good fortune of having their expectations shaped during the worst of times and their achievements realized during the best of times—an unbeatable match. And for young professionals, starting a family on a low budget was not a wrenching experience. “When you’re moving up, even the bottom doesn’t look so bad,” says Herbert Gans. For their children, it is just the reverse. “It’s not downward mobility but upward futility,” says Thomas Winters, a lawyer who has just bought an East Side condominium. “My wife and I look at each other and say, ‘If we don’t have it now, we’re never going to have it.’ “
Even people who didn’t grow up in comfort feel disillusioned. “It’s not that I came from wealth; it’s just that I thought by the time I was 36 I’d easily be buying a second home, having a car,” says John Reiner, a lawyer living in an East Side studio. Such disappointments create an undercurrent of dismay felt in psychiatrists’ offices all over town. “I see it all the time,” says Dr. Ruth Moulton. “Young doctors, young lawyers who grew up expecting to go to Europe every summer or have a car and a co-op… . They wanted to do at least as well as their parents—if not better—but that’s harder to do now.”
The economic argument for this is persuasive. First, there’s inflation. A person who earns $101,000 in 1982 can’t buy any more than his parents, who earned $28,000 in 1952, could. “Funny money,” says one New York investment banker. “It sounds like so much more than it is.” What’s more, for many with higher educations, salaries have lagged far behind inflation. According to Harvard economist Richard Freeman, a liberal-arts graduate starting out today is actually earning 30 to 35 percent less in real income than one starting out in 1970.
Also, middle-class people in 1982 get to keep a smaller percentage of their money than did people in the fifties. Taxes exact the largest bite. A married couple living in Manhattan whose combined income was $66,000 in 1981 paid about 40 percent of it in taxes, according to Harvey Grosberg, of the Research Institute of America. A married couple earning an equivalent amount in 1962 (roughly $22,000 in ‘62 dollars) paid only 27 percent of their income in taxes (assuming only the husband worked, which was most often the case). This is called bracket creep, something all those commuters from Scarsdale never heard of. “Basically, tax rates haven’t kept pace with inflation,” says Martin Karlin, of the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Manhattan office. An earned income of $50,000 put a person in the top (50 percent) tax bracket in 1972 and 1982, even though in 1982 that $50,000 was really only worth $21,561 in 1972 dollars.
Of all the taxes, the one that has had the steepest rise is Social Security, and that’s been a double blow to young couples in the 1980s. With husband and wife likely to be working, both have to shoulder the increase.
All of this induces what sociologist Blumberg calls “the Las Vegas syndrome.” “Citizens observe that success and economic security no longer depend on the usual virtues of hard work and saving, but on inflationary currents over which they have no control,” he says in his book Inequality in an Age of Decline. The result is an erosion of the Protestant work ethic and its replacement by a philosophy that puts a premium on spending.
People in their twenties and thirties, especially in Manhattan, eat out often. Jonathon and Louisa Erdman, though alarmed at what the prospect of having children will do to their budget, do not deprive themselves of the dark-chocolate mousse at Simon’s or an occasional dinner at Texarkana. At home, they enjoy meals prepared from recipes in the Times. Pierre Franey’s 60-Minute Gourmet is concerned more with time than with penny-pinching. They earn their respective incomes of $50,000 and $20,000 working in the movie business and need to dress well. His father never made clothes as smart as Jonathon’s, which come from Barney’s or Charivari, two blocks from their Columbus Avenue apartment. For Louisa, it’s Ann Taylor or Bendel’s. Trips are also regarded as necessities. “We think nothing of going down to the Caribbean for four days,” says Marsha Rose, 29, a social-services administrator. Her mother neither worked nor considered taking vacations like that when she was Marsha’s age.
Educated to appreciate the good things in life, they do, and it keeps their budgets high. “It took me 25 years to appreciate good wine,” says Professor Bensman, who is 60. “My kids acquired that taste at their father’s knee. It gives them a built-in cost of living I didn’t have.” The mentality toward saving is also different. The ethic for most middle-class adults in the fifties was to pay bills on time, shop during sales, and save for a house. The rest was gravy. For their offspring, it’s just the reverse. Many of them buy what they feel they must have, and if there’s anything left, they pay the bills. Unable to buy a house, some discard the notion of saving altogether. It’s the middle-class version of buying Cadillacs when you’re poor. “If you’re stuck in an apartment because you can’t afford a house, you might as well buy a Betamax or a stereo” is the way Professor Blumberg describes the mentality. The result is a generation economist Eliot Janeway calls “well-dressed paupers.” But the Izod shirts and Brie from Balducci’s shouldn’t fool anyone. As one mother-in-law asked of her well-paid children, “What have you got to show for it?”
The decline in public services and amenities accounts for another new expense the young affluent have to bear. The same municipal services that middle-class people routinely took advantage of in the fifties have steadily deteriorated: mass transit, parks, schools. “My mother sent us to public schools, wheeled our strollers in the park, and took us to Neponsit [a city beach],” says Marsha Rose. “I wouldn’t send my kids to those places now.”
But probably the biggest factor in creating a sense of downward mobility is housing. “The only dream we had was to buy a house,” says Linda Balzac Herman, a hospital administrator whose husband is an advertising executive. “And we can’t do that.” In 1955, the editors of Fortune predicted, “Certainly the day is close at hand when almost anybody with a job can afford to own a house.” Read “few” for “anybody” and the forecast is properly updated. Horror stories abound. “When we first got married, we moved into this cute one-bedroom apartment thinking it was a nice little place to start out in,” says Susan Beltzer. “Seven years later, we’re still here.” Madelaine Harris, who was raised in Westport, Connecticut, says, “The bedroom I had growing up was larger than my whole apartment is now, and had more windows, too.”
A $150,000 one-bedroom condominium at an interest rate of 17 percent would cost a person $1,604 a month in mortgage payments, assuming a 25 percent net down payment, says Michael Sumichrast, chief economist for the National Association of Homebuilders. (Interest, of course, is tax-deductible, but maintenance costs can equal that saving.) For a person earning $80,000 a year, the total turns out to be over a third of his monthly aftertax income. That renders ridiculous the old rule “One week’s salary for one month’s rent.” Such advice made sense in 1952, when, according to the National Association of Homebuilders, the average house cost $14,500 and interest rates hovered around 4.25 percent. Now the average price of a home in the New York metropolitan area is $96,000 and interest rates average 17.4 percent. That means a monthly mortgage payment of $1,148, not even including maintenance or carrying fees. “People starting out now with no equity can forget it,” says sociologist Blumberg. “They’re out of the housing market forever.”
“… Parents created expectations for the baby-boom generation that may well be impossible to realize…”
Those who can’t buy, rent, a condition that carries a particular stigma for children whose parents viewed renting as something poor people did. These offspring have the dubious pleasure of watching their parents make huge profits on the homes they bought in the fifties. “Almost everyone who bought a home with a 5 percent mortgage made back triple,” says Eliot Janeway. Augmented by the proceeds from the sale of their Archie Bunker-style house in Brooklyn, Marsha Rose’s parents recently bought a place in Florida and now commute between it and the country home they bought for $25,000 eight years ago in the Hamptons. “I’d like to see myself pull off a trick like that when I’m 60,” she says. “Most likely, I’ll still be struggling to pay the rent.”
Gerald Levin, 31, is a dermatologist three years out of medical school. In the hierarchy of medical specialties, his ranks low in terms of prestige and high in income. His father, a jewelry exporter, earned $27,000 at his peak, several years ago. His mother was a bookkeeper. They rented the bottom floor of a two-family house in the Bronx and raised Gerald and his sister there. Much glitter was associated with the title “M.D.,” and when Gerald finally got his, he assumed the future was secure. “I thought, ‘Now I’m all set. A house, a car’—I’d be able to get anything I wanted. That’s not the case.”
Opening a practice anywhere in Westchester, Nassau, or New Jersey in the fifties generally assured a doctor of an instant income adequate to support a family of four. With more doctors and fewer babies, it now may take as long as five years to build up a practice lucrative enough to support a family. Since Levin and his fiancée plan to buy a house and start a family before then, he is safeguarding his future by keeping a position on the faculty of one of the city’s medical schools. That his decidedly non-affluent parents could afford to buy him a car in high school and keep a speedboat by their summer cottage on the lake baffles him. “I’m going to have to work a lot harder than I expected to live better than they do.”
If economics is one factor that has created a feeling of downward mobility, demographics is another. There are, quite simply, too many people in the same cohort. An M.A., M.D., or M.B.A. means so much less now because there are so many more of them. In almost every occupation, the competition is up and the rate of promotion down for the baby-boom generation. “Forever shackled to the oversupply inherent in its large numbers, the boom generation would be doomed to a life of low earnings, career disappointments and personal struggle,” wrote Landon Jones, chronicler of its frantic scramble in his book, Great Expectations.
With more people born between 1946 and 1957, for instance, than there had been in the previous 30 years, there is more competition for everything from a house on the beach to a place in medical school. The economic consequences are obvious. “The relatively greater number of people in this generation tends to depress pay rates and slow their movement up the career ladder, all of which reduces their income relative to their parents’,” says economist Richard Easterlin, of the University of Southern California. In fact, for the first time in recent history, the relative earnings of college graduates dropped in the early seventies, just when much of the baby-boom generation was marching from colleges to jobs.
But the consequences are not solely economic. Sounding like a latter-day Malthus, Easterlin has linked a whole series of disturbances that afflict this generation to its size: marital strain, high rates of divorce, suicides, anxiety, and higher rates of white-collar crime. “They feel greater economic pressures, and a lot of consequences flow from that,” he says. By contrast, their parents had it easy. A low birthrate in the twenties and thirties kept the population down and the competition low. “For those fortunate enough to be members of a small generation, life is—as a general matter—disproportionately good,” says Easterlin. “The opposite is true for those who are members of a large generation.”
“I feel I was born too late,” says Angela Karas, 31, a manager with an airline. “Ten years earlier, people were getting promotions right away and rent-controlled apartments. I’ve been out of business school five years now, and I’m not living any better than I did when I was a student.” The spoiler effect is ubiquitous. “Why does it seem that everywhere you look everyone is trying to do what you’re trying to do?” asks one financial analyst, 30. It doesn’t just seem that way—the highway to the Hamptons really is more crowded.
The young affluent of the eighties also feel deprived because of pervasive factors rooted in their psychology, their upbringing, and their culture. “There is downward mobility, and there is perceived downward mobility,” says Professor Blumberg. “If people feel deprived relative to their parents, it has consequences on their behavior, how they view happiness and success.”
Many in Manhattan’s affluent middle class have parents or grandparents who were not born in this country. For those whose ancestors arrived at the turn of the century, penniless and uneducated, upward mobility was virtually a matter of standing still. They had only to look back to their humble origins to recognize the tremendous strides they’d made. For their children, a similar leap forward is that much harder, if only because of what sociologists call “the pyramid effect.” “Once you’ve achieved a certain level, it gets increasingly harder to go higher,” says Herbert Gans. “It’s like a pyramid. The number of better positions goes down, and the competition for them goes up.”
But if it is harder for them to equal the dramatic move upward their parents achieved, certain facts about their upbringing make it all the more frustrating to them when they do not. “The Child Is the Meaning of This Life,” the title of a Delmore Schwartz short story, cuts to the heart of the matter. Parents with the experience of the Depression behind them worked hard so their children wouldn’t have to. Thousands of Marks and Alisons marched off to college with their imported luggage and TV’s and stereos and had their sensibilities refined and their tastes cultivated so that they could enjoy Henry James and Lafite-Rothschild.
If their experience deprived them of material hardship, it protected them from other kinds of hardship as well. Freud and Spock were bastardized into an ethos that suggested frustrating a child’s desires would saddle him with needless psychological problems the rest of his life. The two burdens parents in the fifties laid upon their children were great expectations and the kind of childhood upon which it is almost impossible to improve.
Diane Klein has an M.A. in art history, an M.B.A. from Columbia, and, at 28, earns $35,000 as a manager for an ailing airline. Her mother never worked, except occasionally to help her father in his booming Forest Hills medical practice in the early fifties. The family lived in Bayside, a place Diane never considered anywhere she would want to raise a family. Today, she and her fiancé cannot afford to buy any of the houses on her parents’ block. Instead, they have decided to buy the junior one-bedroom apartment she lives in now for the insider’s price of $95,000.
Hers was an expansive childhood. Her education in the Queens public-school system (Bayside High sent at least three seniors a year to Harvard) was supplemented by all sorts of private lessons. Between ages five and fifteen it was ballet. From eight to twelve it was Hebrew school. Between eight and sixteen, piano lessons at Juilliard. Because her mother had spent her youth rummaging through racks at discount clothing stores, Diane was ushered into Saks and Lord & Taylor and told to buy her clothes in pairs. “You never know when you’re going to need an extra,” her mother counseled. (Diane goes to Lord & Taylor now only when her mother takes her. Otherwise, it’s back to the bargain basements in which her mother started out.)
Her father went to City College and then to Cornell University Medical College, in Manhattan. He worked his way through by waiting on tables in the Catskills. It was his dream to send his own children to the beautiful upstate Ithaca campus he had heard so much about from the other interns, so Diane and her older sister went to Cornell, all expenses and tuition paid. In between, there were trips to Europe, and orchestra seats for the ballet at City Center, and Sunday-morning breakfasts of sturgeon. Diane’s one-bedroom really is cramped, but to eyes used to eight rooms, a finished basement, and a backyard with a screened-in porch, it must look all the more confining. “I don’t see my future here,” she says. And yet, with a freeze on promotions and pay raises at her company and a fiancé not at all certain he can establish the kind of practice that a doctor in the fifties could, it’s unlikely Diane’s future will keep pace with her past. “What bothers me most,” she says, “is the thought that I’ll never be able to do for my kids what my parents did for me.”
It may be small consolation, but Diane’s children will have the luxury of telling their children something affluence denied Klein—stories about what it was like to grow up with money worries.
Marsha Rose and her husband earn $60,000. They rent a parlor-floor apartment in Brooklyn Heights for $700 a month. In order to afford the things their parents have—his father is a dentist in Scarsdale, hers owned a small plumbing-supply business—they would have to give up the luxuries they got used to during the years they, like so many of their peers, spent single and childless. They find that prospect frankly unsettling. “I wouldn’t give up my land in the country or my cleaning lady. I’d be miserable,” says Marsha. “I’m not fooling anyone. I’d feel deprived and sorry for myself. I have a sense that I’m entitled. My mother devoted her life to making me feel that way, and she certainly succeeded.”
“… Small apartments become pocket museums …”
“Do whatever makes you happy,” the parents of the fifties told their children, and many of them did. Relatively free of financial constraints that might have forced them to pick more practical careers, many chose jobs that would fulfill them, not make them rich. “My father always wanted to be a writer,” says Debra Kron, a dancer who earns $600 in a good month. “Instead, he took over his father’s clothing business on the Lower East Side. He didn’t tell us what to be, but he encouraged us to do what we loved.”
When Linda Lerman was contemplating a career in social work, salary was not high on her list of considerations. “I picked it on the basis of interest, dedication, and what I thought would suit my personal needs.” Now she’s facing the consequences of that decision. “I have a friend who pumped gas to pay her way through the University of Buffalo who now makes $40,000 in advertising. I probably don’t even make as much as her secretary.”
For some, the decision to become a historian, union organizer, or sculptor does not represent a lesser standard of living so much as a positive career choice. But the number of such people is dwindling. A 1980 survey done by Yankelovich, Skelly & White found that while most students at the top business schools still rated “fulfillment” as their chief career goal, those with five years in the work force gave top priority to money. Waves of editors, teachers, and social workers are rushing back to school on what George Sternlieb, of the Rutgers University Center for Urban Policy, calls “the new G.I. bill—generous in-laws.” “There are people who are happy to make $20,000 to $25,000 a year in publishing because they love books,” says Chris Belknap, now finishing up his M.B.A. at N.Y.U. business school. “I didn’t happen to be one of those people.”
There is a built-in liability to starting out high up on the class pyramid. If your father was a dry cleaner, you could become a doctor, but if he was a doctor, then what? This creates the kind of refocusing on individual values that polltaker Daniel Yankelovich reported in his 1980 book, New Rules: Searching for Self-Fulfillment in a World Turned Upside Down. Alan Katz, 36, like his father, is a lawyer. He earns the equivalent of what his father earned at his age, but psychologically he feels he’s doing worse. “I don’t have nearly his sense of career or attachment to the profession,” says Katz. “It’s as if he got there first.” Instead, Katz runs. The focus is on self-improvement, most often involving physical health. Fifty percent of the group Yankelovich identified as the young affluent professionals “like wheat germ and high-fiber foods.” They’re also apt to have dinners accompanied by wine and candlelight, reflecting a standard of living not necessarily better but different.
To those who believed all the sixties generation needed was a good spanking, anyway, the slowing down of the fast track is a good thing. “Responding creatively to challenge is good for youth,” says neoconservative Irving Kristol. It forces people to make choices. The kinds of choices young professionals are making today reflect a shift in life-style, a standard of living that emphasizes quality, not quantity, depth ahead of breadth. Some have called it “the Europeanization of American taste.” There is a tinge of Europe’s genteel poor in this generation. They drink good wine, eat Brie, and linger in sidewalk cafés. Their tone is apt to be more cynical. “Getting ahead” is a goal heard less frequently than “getting by.” One takes one’s pleasures where one can, forsaking for the moment the notion of future gains.
Jonathon and Louisa Erdman—she just turned 30—have delayed the inevitable chain of events a thirtieth birthday connotes: co-op, mortgage, baby. Instead, they hired a friend to build bookshelves and make a library out of the sleeping loft in their Columbus Avenue apartment. Blanketing the walls are posters of films from the movie company for which Jonathon works. “We surround ourselves with things of beauty and meaning,” he says. For all that, they are newly practical. “Money market” is now part of their vocabulary, and salary considerations carry more weight. “I may reroute into a more lucrative side of the business because there are just certain things you can’t do without,” Jonathon says.
It is possible they will move, but if they do, it will be to some neighborhood considerably less chic than Columbus Avenue. They are looking in the East Village and other marginal areas, “as if this was when we first moved here,” Jonathon says. “I must say, I get scared every now and then thinking it’s not going to get any better and that I’ll always be not poor but no more comfortable than this. I may get a job that pays more, but then I’ll have a kid and it’ll be the same old tap dance.”
Marsha Rose and her husband have given up the idea of buying a house. Instead, they will continue to rent their Brooklyn Heights floor-through and put away a little money to build a house upstate. “I haven’t given up the idea of having all the things I want. I’ve just adjusted to the fact that I’m not going to have them as soon as I thought I would.”
Like the privileged but strapped classes before them, the children of the affluent fifties cling to their notions of quality and taste. “I’ll buy fewer shoes,” says Louisa Erdman, “but I’ll still buy them at Susan Bennis Warren Edwards.” They splurge on small symbols of the good life. They use cloth napkins and good china—what mother reserved for “company”—for everyday meals. Galleries, museums, and concerts in the park are the acceptable and cheap alternatives to Broadway shows. Not surprisingly, museum membership has risen dramatically as the baby-boom generation has come of age. “Even the most arcane and difficult exhibits attract a larger audience,” says Philippe de Montebello, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “There is a greater intellectual curiosity in the arts, and it is most pronounced among people in the 25-to-40 age range.” Culture is important to them, but not at the expense of possessions. The Dean & DeLucas, the boutique clothing stores, thrive on this generation. Columbus Avenue, aflower with places to shop and eat and sit and talk, is wholly their creation. On a summer’s evening it is as crowded as St. Germain.
Making use of its educated tastes, the young middle-class generation disguises the mundane. Conscious of design, they are apt to deal creatively with limitations of space. Their apartments become pocket museums, filled with prints, books, and objets d’art. “It’s like Europe,” says Mark Kramer. “You walk down some little alley and into some decrepit building and there’s this beautiful interior.”
On a Tuesday night, Joseph Papp’s production of Molière’s Don Juan is playing in Central Park. Mark and Alison Kramer have arranged to share a picnic in the park with several other couples, each of whom has brought a dish. “The park is filled with people who don’t have $200 to do dinner out, a Broadway show, taxicabs, and the whole production,” Mark says. And certainly among the Kramers’ friends it is true. Many of them have not matched their parents’ standard of living, but, watching them unload the wine and candles from their picnic hampers, who would know? “Winos drank wine,” one lawyer quips about his parents’ notions, but here it is regarded as an essential part of the feast. Mark and Alison have bought two bottles, $10 apiece on sale. There are cold pasta salads, baskets of fruit, and platters of cheese. Everyone in the group is familiar with Molière, and most have read at least one of his works, but the play is the least important part of the evening. Most of the night, the couples sit and talk. “The conversation was more interesting than any my parents could’ve had,” Mark says afterward. There are things the Kramers lack that their parents have, and some days it makes them bitter. But that’s not apparent on evenings such as this. By the lake, under the moon, drinking wine and talking with friends. “You know, you don’t have to give in to it,” Mark says. “We can still have it all—just in a different way.”
*The names of the subjects of this article have been changed to protect their privacy.