Jess’s post over at NY Magazine and the recent spate of yuppie death threats in the East Village put me to pondering about the condition of urban life in New York. Specifically, the condition of yuppie-ness, and what it means to be a young New York-er these days.
It’s not looking good for the Young Urban Professional. The NY Times pointed out that the Wall Street yuppie variety is under particular stress these days, setting off cries of glee from a few places. It’s not like the other quintessential “New York” industries are doing so well for themselves either – the media industries started saying that ‘flat is the new up‘ (meaning they have no idea how to keep making money), and traditional news companies are so deep in shit it hurts. Jesus, even the real estate market has hit the brakes.
So, if the ‘yuppie’ enters decline, what takes its place as the keystone species of the urban ecosystem? What makes the new-New York economy go round?
Introducing: the “Yupre” – the Young Urban Pre-Professional.
What makes this the age of the Yupre? First, New York has become a college town. As I pointed out in a previous post, 600,000 college students call New York (temporary) home. Even more post-grad 20-somethings come here trying to make their way in the New York industries – fashion, media, finance, etc. Many of these new and temporary arrivals will never achieve full employment while in New York, taking a series of internships, volunteer positions and part time jobs to make ends meet before shuffling off to middle America, suburbia or Los Angeles. Despite this, they define the (cultural) economy of New York.
Economically – As a student at NYU pursuing a career in the ‘media industry,’ I’ve been subjected to a barrage of shitty employment offers. Here’s a sample:
“amNewYork is looking for journalism students for fall internships. Applicants will be required to write both news and feature stories, copy edit and do fact checking. This is an unpaid internship…”
“We are looking for interns to help us with the daily publishing duties associated with ForbesAutos.com. This includes writing and reporting, web production, article research, fact-checking, and proofreading. Ideally, applicants should have an interest in new media, and we are looking for someone with a fine eye for detail along with a solid foundation in writing. Since we are a car website, knowing the difference between a Porsche 911 GT2 and Porsche 911 GT3 is also a plus, but not required. This is an unpaid internship, and we’d like someone who can come in at” least two days a week for a few hours, or possibly the whole workday.”
“Men’s Vogue is looking for an editorial intern for the spring semester. The internship must count for credit, and interns would be asked to work 2 full days a week. Internship opportunities and responsibilities include: writing original content for our website; scouting theater, music, film, art, and book releases; researching potential story ideas for editors; and some administrative tasks.”
Job descriptions for internships read like the descriptions for real jobs; the only differences are the employees (students) and the pay (shit). Anyone taking these positions would be subject to the same demands placed on employees (producing original content, editorial work, etc), and their work would generate income in some form, yet often their only hope for advancement comes in the form of a rec letter or a resume bullet.
CAVEAT: I’ve taken some fuckin’ sweet internships, where my boss took a genuine interest in my education, and took the time to help me improve as a writer and journalist; I’ve also worked places in line with my political beliefs, where I essentially worked as a volunteer, but with the privileges of being an employee. In some cases, free labor makes sense, but in many more instances, employers will treat their interns as human resources in the most cynical sense, making extreme demands on their time and energy and then disposing with them.
Here’s the point: major industry in New York relies on free, temporary labor supplied by young people, primarily students, creating a new class of urban resident: the Young Urban Pre-Professional.
Culturally – Paradoxically, many Yupres live a relatively decent lifestyle – moving to New York is no cheap endeavor, and recent college grads sometimes have the backing of their parents. As for college students, few NYU students (at least) face eminent starvation if left unemployed (although some go without housing, and many many more take on massive debt).
The free time endowed by parental stipends and loose employment gives Yupres the space and energy to engage in the creative activity which (as Elizabeth Currid explains in The Warhol Economy), makes the New York economy go round. They’re the ones starting and discovering new bands, critiquing and making the art in New York’s galleries, and dreaming up new web ventures. Admittedly, they also homogenize and gentrify, filling NYU’s dorms in the East Village and clog Williamsburg with and eerie hoard of skinny hipster clones every weekend, but the creative zeitgeist remains.
Still, the average Yupre saga will most often end in some disappointment, either emotionally or financially. Middle America will never run out of kids with dreams of striking it big as writers, Wall Street-ers or artists, which means that New York will never run out of free or cheap labor from fresh faced 18-21 year olds willing to sell their soul for a break (or, as Jess put it “give blowjobs for bylines”). Forever at the service of their cultural and economic masters, the ever circulating Yupre class will define and shape New York for decades to come.