The Decade of Drudgery

If one cultural artifact exemplifies the Eighties, it is the Day-Timer. The Eighties was the decade when no one had any time. What made the Eighties so boring is that people were proud of this.

Drudges who invariably labored in something called "marketing" bragged about working sixty- or even eighty- hour weeks. Even heads of corporations affected this workaholic pose. In a recent article, publisher Al Newharth bleated self-righteously about arriving for work every morning between 5 and 6 a.m. What's the point of being rich if you have to work so hard?

The Eighties brought us people who "pencil in" each other for lunch, people who engage in leisure activities--such as fitness--that are more arduous than any job and people who leave messages on each other's answering machines to make an appointment to have a phone conversation. The Eighties brought us stress-management workshops for junior high school children. The Eighties, in fact, glorified stress.

The message of the decade was: "I have a job and it requires endless amounts of my time, and therefore I'm important."

This endless bragging about one's long hours, this constant calling attention to one's job is yet another indication of what a thoroughly middle- class country the United States of America is. Life, however, was not always this way. People used to have more imagination. Let's listen, in fact, to Frederick Townsend Martin, a self-confessed member of the upper class, writing in 1911: "Not so very long ago, in the fashionable world of New York, it was considered bad taste, in fact, it was a decided breach of etiquette, to inquire amongst the men of your acquaintance what anybody did for a living."

How lovely that must have been!
All this tiresome talk about work coincided with the appearance of the Yuppies at the start of the decade. When the Yuppies were first discovered, people invariably confused them with the Preppies, because the words were similar and because both groups were the subject of "Handbooks." But the two are really quite different, and the difference has to do with social class, a subject that makes many people nervous and confused. A common misconception is that social class depends on how much money you make, which is not true.

Allow Paul Fussell, author of Class, to explain the relationship between money and social standing.

"No one whose money, no matter how copious, comes from his work-- film stars are an example--can be a member of the top-out-of-sight class," Fussell writes. "Inheritance--`old money' in the vulgar phrase--is the indispensable principle defining the top three classes."

Drug dealers are a good example of people who have plenty of money and low, low, low social class. Yuppies are an example of people who have plenty of money but hopelessly middle, middle, middle-class standing.

One of the earmarks of the top social classes, to which the Preppies belong, is what Cyril Connolly called "the principle of least effort." This means never looking as if you are trying very hard, because all things, from ordering lunch to being an authority on Georgian silver, come effortlessly. Let's listen to Charles Hampden-Turner, gentleman and social scientist, elucidate the relationship between social class and haste:

"Not seeming to strive is a near obsession with the English ruling class. Even when summoned to war they must appear languid and unhurried." In short, he says, "haste is unseemly."

Haste is almost as bad as hard work, a vice to which it is related. "Those who work hard and intelligently at a systematic discipline," says Hampden- Turner, "are seen as dreary, colourless and uncouth."

Isn't there something in all this? Aren't the eighty-hour-a-weekers genuinely tiresome? Now this may be dreadfully unfair to the Yuppies, who stand in the glorious American tradition of self-made men. After all, they are substituting hard work and answering machines for inherited wealth, a commodity Americans have always been leery of. On the other hand, folks with large amounts of hard-earned cash used to be referred to as "arrivistes" and ridiculed in books like The Rise of Silas Lapham.

The Eighties, however, seem to have buried once and for all the possibility of an idle rich. Even Ivana Trump works, sort of. Too bad. In the old days, young men about town would line their invitations up on their mantels, and let their butlers take care of their schedules. That seems more civilized than having a time-management software package plugged into one's home computer.