NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
A few years ago, David Brooks accomplished an uncommon publishing feat: he wrote an insightful best-seller.
The book, "Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There" (Simon & Schuster: 2000), explored how loosely defined counterculture perspectives, held by rich people, have transformed American society.
Brooks called his subjects "bobos," or bourgeois-bohemians. And in the years since he first identified them, their economic influence has only accelerated.
Bobos drive sensible but expensive vehicles. They take exotic but comfortable vacations. They drink coffee, but try to be clever about it. ("I'll have a double mocha latte, half soy-half skim, please. And are these the shade-grown beans?")
Like 1980s yuppies, the bobos are über-consumers. But unlike those suspender-clad cousins, bobos consider themselves socially conscious. Extravagant spending must be justified by at least a veneer of virtuousness.
That mindset is what makes the bobos important to understand.
Consider just a few of the ways that wealthy consumers with a 1960s sensibility have become the thought leaders of the U.S. economy:
* Hybrid autos. Surging in popularity, the hybrids are so hot you can't even get one -- and not just in Hollywood or the Upper West Side. Waiting lists are long out in middle America, too. And automaker assembly lines are humming with new models.
* Organic groceries. Whole Foods, the nature-loving chain, is one of the most dynamic stories in the supermarket industry. The high-priced grocer -- "Whole Paycheck" to its detractors -- sells perfect produce, beautiful baked goods, and oodles of organic items. The company's meteoric expansion over the past few years is a sure sign that Americans are buying.
* Green buildings. Pick up any architecture or home design magazine, and you'll see story after story about environmentally sensitive construction. From smart heating systems to low-flow toilets, "sustainability" is as elemental as nails to the modern builder. Even President Bush, no left-wing granola muncher, powers his Texas ranch with solar electricity.
* Adventure travel. Paris? Passé. Today's upper-class traveller goes on safari in southern Africa, or books a berth to sail from Tierra del Fuego to Antarctica. Some stay at eco-resorts that cost $1,000 a night, but do not have electricity. Others take holidays in Mongolia, trekking from yurt to yurt with local tribesmen. (See: "The anti-beach vacation.")
You can find them anywhere
Plenty of analysts have described how the tastes of elite classes eventually gravitate towards the masses. The impact of the bobos fits the pattern perfectly.
Remember when espresso seemed foreign? How about sushi? Today, there's a latte bar on every corner, and raw tuna wrapped in seaweed is as common as a Big Mac.
In dozens of industries -- from cars to computers to fashion -- similar market transformations are happening now. Those at the top of the food chain are demanding new products. Eventually, everybody else joins in.
As Brooks noted, bobos can been spotted nearly everywhere. They're in university towns like Ann Arbor and Berkeley, to be sure. But they're also in affluent suburbs like Winnetka, Ill., and gentrifying urban neighborhoods, such as various parts of Brooklyn.
It's not just a U.S. phenomenon, either. Newspapers in Paris, London, and Milan have all reported on the bobos in their midst.
Wherever you find them, you'll see businesses vying for their money. A Whole Foods is opening in Britain and there are Starbucks all over China. And, of course, nearly every multinational corporation in the world loudly trumpets its own social consciousness.
"A new set of rules and and sumptuary codes is emerging," Brooks observed. "This new set of codes organizes the consumption patterns of the educated class, encouraging some kinds of spending, which are deemed virtuous, and discouraging others that seem vulgar."
Five years later, it's a trend that's still worth watching.
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The Good Life is a weekly column that chronicles products, people and trends in luxury consumer goods, travel, and fine food and drink. Write to: email@example.com.