Pride and Prejudice Against the Rich

By David Bork

Children from affluent families need guidance in coping with the hostile envy they will encounter.

A young man of 27 who had inherited a very substantial amount of money was exasperated because he felt many people saw him not for who he was—his “personal net worth”—but rather as an extension of his financial net worth. He stood up at a family meeting and passionately declared: “I am not my money! It is ridiculous that an unfinished apartment slab costs $1.2 million and that it will take another $800,000 to finish the apartment. What is really ridiculous is that I am 27 years old and I just wrote the check. It ain’t easy to be rich!”

Young people of wealth often wrestle with extremely ambivalent feelings about their money. Their embarrassment, even self-hate, is shaped to a great extent by the attitudes of those around them. In one culture after another, the people without wealth seem to harbor a hostile envy toward those with wealth.

The irony in this view is that many of the same people who are envied and resented for their wealth are also generally admired for their ambition and industry. The irony occurs the day they step over some invisible line of perceived assets and become “a rich s.o.b.” There is further irony when one considers that those with excess capital are often the creators of businesses, jobs, useful products, foundations, museums, symphony orchestras, and other contributions that benefit society.

The hostile envy seems to be worse for inheritors. It’s as if people who have inherited wealth have come to it by some devious or specious method; by accepting the inheritance, they have committed a wrongful deed and are made to feel guilty. The fact is, inheritors are in the “Lucky Sperm & Egg Club,” a membership over which they have no control. I know of individuals, no longer young, who still call themselves “trust fund babies.” Say it out loud to yourself: It is pejorative and demeaning. Imagine the psychological impact on a mature adult who is called by this name.

Wealthy people are exposed to hostile envy when they are very young, and it carries on through adulthood. It is little wonder that some inheritors wrestle for years with these complex psychological issues. Here are three examples:

  • A 10-year-old from a family with very substantial assets is playing in the schoolyard. His playmates are taunting him: “You’re rich, you’re rich. Yah, yah, yah!” Finally, in response, he replies: “No, I’m not!” What he has learned is that to gain acceptance, he must lie.
  • The 19-year-old sister of the 10-year-old is a sophomore at a private university. A splendid new dormitory carries the family’s unusual surname; it was given to the university by her parents. A classmate asks: “XXX Hall, is that your family?” “Yes,” she blurts out, and begins to cry. Then she dashes into the dormitory.
  • A 29-year-old has direct control over $12 million to $15 million and will inherit several multiples of that amount. While fishing with his friends, they chide him: “Must be nice to be rich.” He is embarrassed, blushes, and says nothing.


How to answer

These three young people are the victims of hostile envy and a negative bias against the rich. Their parents have not adequately prepared them to deal with the consequences of family wealth and how it is viewed by society. If the parents had done so, or if the family had received professional advice, the three might have responded differently:

  • The 10-year-old would have said, “Can’t help it,” and went on playing.
  • The 29-year-old might havecocked his baseball cap to one side, put a strange grin on his face, and said, “It sure is!” and continued fishing.
  • The 19-year-old sister would have responded: “Yes, as a matter of fact, my parents gave this dormitory to the university. They have worked very hard in business and have been very successful financially. They believe that they must give back to the community, to the church, and to education. As a matter of fact, they are very generous with their resources, and I am proud of them.” If the questioner had been so crass as to ask specifically about the family wealth, he or she would have been told: “Well, I understand your curiosity, but that is a private matter.”

What principles underlie these responses?

First, tell the truth. Each response is truthful. Children must learn to speak the truth or they will tell and live a lifetime of lies. When people fail to tell the truth about themselves, they put up a fence or screen that keeps out others. Others perceive the fence as an impediment to a close relationship. As a result, the person loses out on rewarding friendships because of his or her inability to manage pervasive negative attitudes toward wealth.

Second, embrace reality. Each of the three responses accepts the reality of the family’s financial situation and allows the individual to speak the truth, embracing who they really are without denial or lying. When we are able to be ourselves, we have a better chance of being comfortable in our own skin. We are not embarrassed by who we are or feel compelled to apologize for it.

Third, use humor. “I can’t help it.” and “Sure is!” both carry a bit of humor that helps to defuse the matter.

Fourth, draw boundaries. To respond that wealth is a “private matter” shows a clear understanding of appropriate boundaries. Note that the response acknowledges the questioner’s curiosity but does not blame the person for it. It simply lets the questioner know that he or she has moved into a private area.

Purpose and passion

Major wealth can become a disincentive to having a satisfying life, but it need not be so. To begin with, every rich person should be sufficiently aware of his or her wealth so they can manage it, or manage the professionals who manage it for them. In addition to this responsibility, they must find a passion—a reason to get up on Monday morning. Regardless of the culture, people seem to be most satisfied with their lives when they have a passion for something beyond simple self-indulgence.

Take the example of a 40-plus, third-generation member of a family that owns one of the largest blocks of urban real estate in America. He has a Ph.D. in psychology and runs a family foundation that annually disburses between $25 million and $40 million to charitable causes. He works as hard as any corporate executive performing “due diligence” for the foundation’s grants. For his efforts he is paid $1 per year, but he derives great pleasure and satisfaction from his work.

A young woman who is a poet, and a very good poet at that, is really, really rich. She supports and helps other writers in her community. She has created a publishing company that publishes their work. At first she was uncomfortable with her vast wealth. She isolated herself and withdrew into her immediate family. In time, however, she realized that she could not allow her wealth to be a barrier to interaction with her community. She came to accept that she is a “rich poet”—not a struggling poet of the classic stereotype.

Freud argued famously that the most important needs in life are love and work. I am taking the liberty of adding a third: play. It is imperative for our psychological well-being that we satisfy our need for all three and to keep them continually in balance—that we have a purpose and a passion in our lives, that we have people whom we love and who reciprocate our love, that we can play and be playful throughout our lives.

Over the years I have wrestled with what defines success. I have come to believe that an internal definition is superior to any grounded in external measurement. Success to me is living the life you choose to lead. It is the best way to boost your personal net worth.

David Bork is founder of the Aspen Family Business Group in Colorado, and a family business counselor for 30 years.

Article categories: 
Print / Download
Winter 1998

Other Related Articles