When the term yuppie came into vogue, Los Angeles banker Don Ercole seemed to superficially fit the stereotype. "I assumed they were talking about me, and I resented it," the 31-year-old Bankers Trust executive recalls. "I felt I worked hard and deserved whatever I was getting. But, at the same time, I thought they were referring to those very conspicuous consumers, and I wasn't going overboard like some other people I knew.
"Heck," he said. "I still don't have a VCR."
In fact, Ercole isn't a yuppie at all. He's a tweener.
No, tweener is not an acronym, anagram or anything tricky like those other mind-numbing monikers that baby boomers have suffered: hippies, yippies, yuppies, dinks. Rather, it's the invention of a New York journalist who borrowed the term from baseball. Just as a tweener--in sports--is a hit that falls between two outfielders, so it follows that a tweener--in a larger context--is a well-educated and affluent young professional caught between his low-rent roots and his high-paying career.
"I didn't invent the word," shrugs ABC News correspondent Bill O'Reilly, who claims to be a tweener himself. "I just applied it to a certain group of people--people like me and my friends. The only way I could get my point across was to give us a label."
Unlike a yuppie who sheds his past as easily as a snake sheds its skin, the tweener wants to hold onto the values of his working-class upbringing while tasting some of the good things in life. But not to excess. That translates into shiny new Hondas instead of shiny new BMWs, CD (certificate of deposit) savings instead of CD (compact disc) players, cash instead of credit cards.
"It's being told: 'Just don't forget where you came from because in the long run you're going to be miserable because then you'll be something you're not,' " explains Cynthia Chvatal, a 32-year-old Hollywood producer whose roots are solidly Illinois blue-collar Czech.
But that doesn't always mean tweeners can or want to go home again for anything longer than one of their frequent visits. "Most of the guys I went to high school with are working at the foundry or in construction," Chvatal notes. "The girls are all housewives with two or three little babies. So I'm a real oddball. But would I be comfortable living the way they live?"
She pauses to reflect. "No," she says softly. "I don't mean to sound judgmental because they're very happy. But I can't think of anything worse."
Experts Suspected the Existence
Actually, demographers, political scientists and marketing experts have suspected the existence of tweeners for some time. But no one had a nice, neat nickname for them until now.
"They're the latest group to be discovered," sighs Samuel Craig, professor of marketing at New York University's Graduate School of Business. "In some respects, the bloom is off yuppies so there has to be another new hot group to take their place."
Tom O'Sullivan, a partner in the Mid-Wilshire advertising agency Kollewe & O'Sullivan, sees tweeners as the product of changing psychographics, not changing demographics. "I think these people have been there all the time and in very large numbers," he says, "But they've been somewhat invisible because the free-spending yuppie segment has been in the forefront."
Estelle Ellis, president of Manhattan-based Business Image, a creative marketing company that tracks social trends, claims responsibility for the idea of tweeners, if not the label. She says that O'Reilly's concept really came from an interview that she gave to a business journal two years ago.
Also claiming credit is political theorist Ralph Whitehead at the University of Massachusetts who in 1985 coined the term "new collar voters" (see Chronology of Labels). He sees tweeners as a subset of the newest baby-boomer bloc he recently identified: so-called "bright collar" workers. "It seems to me that a lot of the tweener category and the bright-collar category strongly overlap," he explains.
In fact, no one knows for sure how many tweeners there are nationwide. But several experts put the number at around 15 million--less than the 20-million well-educated young managers and professionals which Whitehead describes as "bright-collar" workers, and more than the estimated 4 million yuppies shopping madly at Bullock's and Bloomingdale's.
But who are tweeners? And are they as shallow and shamelessly acquisitive as yuppies?
An exact definition is difficult because tweeners are staunch individualists. "These people haven't made a conscious decision to be this way," O'Reilly says. "Nobody said, 'Here are the rules to be a tweener. Let's follow them.' There's not a polo pony logo to bind us all together."
But almost anyone would be proud to be a tweener--especially since they possess many admirable qualities that yuppies sorely lack. "I like the focus of what these people are in terms of a group," O'Sullivan says. "It doesn't smack of shallowness and it doesn't smack of greed. I think it's got some real solid American values to it."
By all accounts, tweeners often are the product of immigrant families and usually the first or second child to graduate from college. Trend-spotter Ellis suggests that tweeners are the "most dramatic examples" of the way that education--both formal and informal--has reshaped the values and priorities of America's blue-collar class.
"Historically, the son of a blue-collar-class family was urged by his parents to take daddy's union card. But then came a very critical point in this country's history when these parents said, 'I want you to go to college,' " Ellis explains.
But while most yuppies try to become corporate clones to erase their non-corporate roots, tweeners embrace their backgrounds with a vengeance and even make frequent trips home to see family and friends. Chvatal, for instance, regularly heads to Richmond, Ill.--population 1,100--for "sanity checks" and hangs out at The Pub with her friends. And every Christmas, O'Reilly gets the old gang together from his Levittown, N.Y., working-class neighborhood to play a football game affectionately known as the "Tinsel Bowl."
"It used to be there wasn't a person who came from Oklahoma who would say they came from Oklahoma," says Ellis. "But something very good has happened to this country. We're very mellow and very nostalgic about our roots. Take what's happening in politics. The chicqest thing right now is to come from poverty. (Mario) Cuomo is always holding up his hard-working Italian father as an example. And (Robert) Dole and (George) Bush only want to try to shed their classy image."
Tweeners also care more about keeping faithful to their parents' values than keeping up with consumer trends. "I do sometimes feel awkward when I'm around Westside doctors, lawyers and other professionals. I'm conscious of some differences," says Michael Levy, a 34-year-old vice president of a video post-production facility whose offices are a short drive from the working-class North Hollywood neighborhood where he grew up.
"Certain things that are a given to some people--that you're automatically going to have a nice, big house on the Westside or you're going to buy a nice, new car every two years or you're going to send your kids to private school and an Ivy League college--these are things that never were part of my life and I don't see them as a priority necessarily," Levy adds. "I can't relate to it all."
Nor do tweeners have many crises of conscience when it comes to moral or ethical issues. In fact, they stare in disbelief at the scene in the movie "Wall Street" when a young stock broker anguishes about whether to break the law and become an insider trader in order to get ahead. Tweeners know what they would have done. They would have told the tempter to go to hell.
"For them, it's black and white. There's no gray," says O'Sullivan. "They learned a code of conduct in childhood that they carried with them into adulthood: You're a stand-up person. Ingrained in them are old-country attitudes of honor and respect and honesty. Even though they left home, went to college and maybe even settled somewhere else, they didn't leave that behind. They carry it in their heart . . . as a code to live by."
Another tweener trait: living within their means instead of beyond them. This translates into fiscal conservatism whether it's making a major purchase, paying with cash instead of on credit or going to dinner. "I come from Baltimore where you eat crabs right out of the barrel, so I find paying $30 for a lobster pretty outrageous," Ercole says.
"I don't have any problem asking how much something is," he adds. "I don't believe the old phrase that 'if you have to ask the price, you can't afford it.' I think that's a screwed-up attitude."
Dan Garcia, a successful L.A. lawyer whose Mexican parents were "very hard-working, very frugal" aircraft workers for McDonnell Douglas, drives a Porsche 928. "But it's still consistent with my philosophy not to waste money," he maintains. "Instead of plunking down $50,000, I just lease it for the tax advantages."
And when he recently bought a home, "I was conscious of buying value," says Garcia who works for the firm of Munger, Tolles & Olson. "I didn't buy a house in Beverly Hills or West L.A. And I could have. But instead of paying $600,000 there, I paid $260,000 for a house on Mount Washington."
"Yeah," laughs journalist O'Reilly, who drives a Toyota though he certainly can afford a Mercedes. "Tweeners can be real boring because they're so sensible."
But not always. When it comes to their work, tweeners do it on their terms or not at all. They won't become contortionists to fit their square-peg personalities into the round holes of Corporate America. Perhaps that's why so many of them have started--or want to start--their own businesses.
"A tweener may be working in a yuppie profession, but he's the one wearing blue jeans to the office as a protest," notes one Hollywood studio executive who asked not to be identified. "And in the company I work at now, not everyone appreciates that."
O'Reilly, for example, says he had a rocky climb up the career ladder. "If you check across the country about me, I'm still considered a maverick. I mean, there are people who hate me," he says proudly. "I'm still an outsider in the sense I was never comfortable with being obsequious or playing the power games which seemed to be mandatory. And when I didn't, it was like I was from outer space."
But even if it's hampered their career climbs, tweeners see their determination to go their own way as a huge plus. "I'm known as independent at my firm," Garcia says. "I try to fit within the institution, but sometimes when rules get over-bureaucratic, I'm not afraid to wonder why."
Indeed, tweeners can feel like strangers in a strange world at work.
Garcia, for instance, remembers what it was like to go from the neighborhoods of Echo Park and the Crenshaw District to the offices of a prestigious downtown L.A. law firm 14 years ago. It "was so unique an experience for me that I wasn't really prepared for what was to follow," he says. "In a sense, I had no expectations. Everything has been a new discovery, which has been sort of enchanting in some ways and a pain in others."
Chvatal, meanwhile, has made a conscious effort not to be over-awed by the conspicuous wealth she sees daily in Hollywood. "Sometimes, I go to meetings in these huge, beautiful homes in Bel-Air or Beverly Hills. You look at them and say, 'Gee, isn't this nice.' But it wouldn't be my choice," she notes. "There are a lot of things I would do given that kind of wealth (rather) than have an enormous 18-bedroom house."
For one thing, Chvatal probably would give every penny to the Chicago theaters, whose rejuvenation she has helped to support with time and money.
Tweeners, in fact, are typically much more altruistic than their yuppie cousins. And they actually like doing volunteer work. Levy, for example, says that being a Big Brother to a 13-year-old from Valencia is one of the most important things he does outside of work.
And Garcia for the past decade has served in the appointed position of president of the Los Angeles City Planning Commission even though it eats up 400 to 500 hours every year. He also serves on the board of directors of the Greater L.A. Partnership for the Homeless, the Music Center and the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund. "I get tired every now and then," he concedes. "But I've always been brought up, because of my parents, believing that I had a responsibility to take an active part in civic affairs."
Though tweeners exude supreme self-confidence in some situations, they can seem pathetically insecure in others. Only a tweener, for instance, knows the terror of confronting his first French menu (or Italian or even California cuisine) when words like radicchio and carpaccio could just as easily be diseases as foods.
Levy, for instance, claims he "never heard" of Brie or cappucino while growing up. Still, he feels he has learned how to hold his own. "I can put the act over of sophistication," he laughs. "And I can enjoy cappucino without missing that I didn't grow up with it."
As for O'Reilly, well, he prefers eating in the company cafeteria than going to expensive Manhattan restaurants like Elaine's, an East Side hangout popular with writers, actors and rock stars.
"Yeah, I went there one night with some people from work," O'Reilly relates. "And the level of condescension in that place was so incredible. So when the waiter came over and announced the specials, I asked him, 'Well, how much is the veal parmigiana?' I could see that the people I was sitting with wanted to crawl under the table. But I frankly didn't care.
"And when I saw that everyone at Elaine's makes a big point of not noticing the celebrities who are all around, I thought, 'Now this will really get them riled.'
"So I asked Mick Jagger to pass the catsup."
How do tweeners and yuppies compare? Here are a few of their favorite things:
John Cougar Mellencamp
The Apple Pan
Big bank accounts
Pierre Du Pont IV
American Express Gold Cards
Trips to Tahiti
A CHRONOLOGY OF LABELS
Baby Boomers--Those born between 1946 and 1961.
Hippies--Flower children who came of age in the '60s.
Yippies--Self-styled radical activists of the late '60s and early '70s.
Yuppies--Young urban professionals of the '80s with a taste for the good jobs and the good life.
New Collar Voters--Middle-class baby boomers with neither the fancy titles nor fancy salaries of yuppies.
Bright Collar Workers--Best-educated baby boomers who have snagged the best-paying jobs as managers and professionals.
Dinks--Double income, no kids couples with great jobs and great life styles.
Tweeners--Well-educated young professionals caught between their low-rent roots and high-paying careers.