FROM HIPSTER TO HIPSTER DOOFUS:
Examining recent demographic trends through the lens of the bike messenger
Here at Breakaway I spend a lot of time hiring, firing, and otherwise poking fun at a group of young, educated New Yorkers I call the “hipster doofus” demographic. Since this term is being bandied about so much and used as a catch-phrase for viewers of the Travel Channel series “Triple Rush” I think a closer examination might be needed in order to define and place this group in its proper context.
Firstly, where does this crazy term come from? The first time I remember hearing the phrase was in a Seinfeld episode when Elaine referred to Kramer as a “stupid hipster doofus”… it was the episode where she thought she had acquired rabies and was foaming at the mouth.
The term stuck in the back of my mind for years but really crystallized in the middle of the last decade when a parade of twenty-something messenger applicants started streaming into our office straight out of the new messenger culture scene that sprung up under our radar. They were usually covered in ink and uttering ironic intonations as a cover for what I perceived as their deeper vulnerabilities as a group.
I started referring to them as hipster doofuses. For me the moniker was an affectionate, yet mocking term of derision. But as I thought further about it over time, I realized, who was I to mock them? Wasn’t I a hipster doofus when I moved to New York and became a messenger? And wasn’t I still a 40 year old man-child myself, and really, what is a hipster? What is a doofus? And who then becomes a hipster doofus? What is special about this current generation of young New York arriviste that makes them worthy of such gentle, yet real scorn?
Let’s pivot now into a more serious examination of the issue by breaking down the term into its component parts and placing this demographic into the firmament of the broader cultural moment.
A hipster in its original incarnation in the post-war period might be defined as person of transgressive, culturally edgy taste, who is alienated from the American mainstream and wears his outrage on their sleeve. We might think of the “Beat” poets, or writers such as Jack Kerouac as hipsters as well as the partisans of the early folk scene. They were makers, not followers of trends. A hipster lived in Greenwich Village when that choice said something about you and although the term as applied to them by contemporaries contains a whiff of condescension it also had a dose of fear and envy. The point is that however they were viewed by their peers the hipsters themselves were unconcerned, Indifferent and did not take it as an insult.
However, over the last ten years the term has morphed into a generic rubric to tag young, upper middle class urban denizens as a type of lightweight phony artistic wannabe who will soon have to face reality and “grow up”. These modern hipsters might self-consciously deny the name when called on it. The application of hipster has become an insult.
A doofus by contrast, whatever the obscure origins of the term, has clearly always been pejorative in intent. I take it to denote a rube, or a hick, a person with no self awareness of their backwoods demeanor, ripe for the picking once spotted lost in the big city. Is it now possible to assign to this person, even in the hyphenated sense, the name hipster? It is surely a doubling dammed invective. For the purposes of this essay though and in the world of the bike messenger I make a distinction in my usage between hipster and hipster doofus.
Let’s try to explain these graduations by taking note of one long-term, and one more recent societal trend. Since the 1980’s and particularly over the last 10 years there has been a striking, and growing inequality in American society between the wealthiest one or two percent and a fast shrinking middle class. How many of us in our 40s and 50s have said to ourselves, “I don’t know if my children will do better or even as well as me”. This disturbing notion is now coupled with more recent and even direr phenomena: Here is a quote from Paul Krugman’s blog at the New York Times explaining recent research by the San Francisco Fed, “…showing that recent college graduates have experienced a large rise in unemployment and sharp fall in full-time employment, coupled with a decline in wages.” How does a bike messenger in New York fit into this story and why would it make him or her a hipster or a hipster doofus?
New York in my lifetime has become a much more expensive place to live for young recent graduates or artists. The cost of living for a working bike messenger 20 years ago compared to wages was much lower enabling an artist/messenger or a musician/messenger to easily earn a living while maintaining an outlying cultural status.
Today this same artist or musician is squeaking by in New York by working more hours at low wage work or more hours as a messenger. But they are just as often being subsidized by their parents into their late 20s and early 30s. Who can blame these parents? Who would not do the same? The cost of living versus the available jobs does not add up anymore. And what will happen to them when this cushion finally is drawn down?
The riddle of the hipster doofus is thus solved: A hipster may be an artist manqué but if they are supporting themselves they are no doofus. A hipster doofus is a person who may be culturally transgressive but whose sense of self awareness and independence has atrophied by their reliance on family at a later age. This is a societal construct and not a personal flaw.
By this logic I absolve them of their perceived innocence since I would be riding their bike under different circumstances.