Is Being Greedy Still a Good Thing in Capitalism?

Angela Colley

The 80s brought you slap bracelets, the Walkman, after school TV specials, big hair, even bigger shoulder pads, yuppies, and “The Greed Decade.”

In the 80s, Wall Street, run mostly by Ivy League econ majors buying and selling blue chip stocks in brown suits, suddenly became very, very cool. Firms hired young, ambitious, and often completely inexperienced brokers with the drive to make it big, fast. The stock market floor suddenly got loud, intense, and maybe for the first time, interesting. Suddenly, everyone (or at least every yuppie) with a bit of cash was looking toward trading as their way to get rich quick and live the good life.

Even President Regan embraced laissez-faire economics, a “Hey, man, whatever” approach to letting the economy do whatever it wanted with little government intervention. At the beginning of the decade, Regan sought to end a recession by doubling down on government expenditures. In 1982, he deregulated the banks. All told, Reaganomics added $1.86 trillion to the national debt, a 186 percent increase. But it proved that, even in the White House, money was in.

The country was entering an invention boom. In 1981, IBM launched the first personal computer. That same year, MTV hit the small screens with the first ever music video, “Video Killed the Radio Star.” By 1984, Apple would make its play for dominancy with the now infamous “1984”-inspired Super Bowl commercial. And Microsoft launched the first operating system in 1985. In many ways, the decade felt untouchable. The 80s were here to party hardy on rooftop decks in designer clothes (and often with a good heap of cocaine), and nothing could get to us.

As Haynes Johnson wrote in The Washington Post March 18, 1987:

“Not since the 1920s, a decade that these Teflon Years of the 1980s increasingly resemble, has the nation witnessed so much common celebration of greed and selfishness. Now, as then, the country has been encouraged to follow the example of big-deal operators, get-rich-quick schemers, inside traders, market manipulators, laissez-faire entrepreneurs in political and corporate life. Private gain has been accorded a higher value than public service. “Making it” has been the era’s slogan.

Whether this decade ends with a sense of disillusionment similar to that experienced by Americans after the giddy boom of the Twenties turned into historic bust, forcing a painful re-examination of all institutions and national leaders, cannot be determined now.”

Spoiler alert: The giddy boom did come to an end. On Oct. 19, 1987, a mere seven months after Johnson’s article was published in The Post, the stock market collapsed—dropping 22.6 percent in a single day. By 1989, Regan’s banking deregulation had led to a savings and loan crisis. In between, dozens of Wall Street bigwigs were taken away in handcuffs, and a Methodist university down in Texas was embroiled in a bribe and cheat scheme that shed light on unethical practices in American’s colleges, or as Johnson put it, “much of the glow of the early 1980s has been dissipated by evidence of major scandals and pervasive mismanagement.”

But for many average working yuppies, the painful re-examination didn’t come. The nation was entrenched in a spend-and-consume culture. Young professionals dreamed of driving around in their luxury cars, talking on their brick car phones to their broker, while listening to the latest get-rich-quick self-help book on tape. Teens all over the nation dreamed of being a real California Valley Girl, hanging out at the mall food court every Saturday. As Gordon Gecko once famously quipped on the big screen (four months after the market crash):

“The point is, ladies and gentlemen that greed is—for lack of a better word—good. Greed is right. Greed works.”

But is it still?

Millennials, the young professionals of the day, for better or worse, are often described as two things: On one hand, the trophy generation, entitled and lazy. On the other, bleeding hearts, happy to throw their money away to any cause they see on social media. Millennials don’t care about building up a good nest egg, they all think they’re going to save the world. As the sharks on Shark Tank and marketers all over the globe clamber to add any charitable component to their product to grab their share of the millennial market, the old guard clings to the old ideas: greed is good, you can’t make money and do good, and millennials aren’t smart enough to put themselves first.

But many millennials (and younger Gen-Xers) came of age in the same era of consumption. Cartoons were designed solely to sell us toys and TV shows like “Beverly Hills 90210” sold us the idea of shopping as the key to happiness. Even as minimalism picks up steam, the majority of us still prefer to own stuff. Because frankly, sitting on a lawn chair in our otherwise empty living rooms, staring down into our bowl of ramen, contemplating the ice caps melting just isn’t that appealing.

We also care about our retirements and hope to actually have one of those one day. After graduating in the height of the recession, many millennials had to delay their entry into the workforce, and some may argue we understand the necessity of a solid retirement fund better than a generation starting their careers in relative prosperity and market security.

But we also came of age in what “The X-Files” once put as “when the EPA got teeth.” We witnessed corporate scandals, humanitarian crises, and environmental disasters. Sure, we watched OJ try to outrun the LAPD and Kelly not marry Brandon while downing Crystal Pepsi. But we also witnessed Enron embezzle pension funds, the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and the Bhutanese refugee crisis.

Today, young adults are still investing, they’re just investing differently. According to Morgan Stanley’s Institute for Sustainable Investing’s 2017 Sustainable Signals report, people in their 20s and 30s are twice as likely to invest in companies focusing on socially responsible investing, and nearly 85 percent of millennials say they’re interested in SRI. After all, more and more investors are putting their money in funds that look for companies with good environmental track records and worker-friendly corporate policies over what simply performed the best last quarter–and those funds are performing well. In 2017, many SRI funds outperformed the S&P 500.

For younger investors, the definition of personal financial growth and what it means to embrace greed is changing. Maybe if Gordon Gecko was taking Bud Fox under his wing today, the big topic at the (ahem) holiday party would be divesting from oil.