Monday, April 25, 2011

Children of Rich People

Last night I had a discussion with my sister about the children of rich or well-off people. There are many people we both know who worked extremely hard since their early youth, literally killed themselves working to create better, more comfortable lives for themselves and their children. They succeed and have very comfortable lifestyles.

However, their children very often end up being total underachievers who have no goals in life and just wander around aimlessly and miserably almost completely dependent on their parents, often well into their forties. These people had everything they ever wanted since the day they were born. Expensive toys, gadgets, fantastic schools, trips abroad, clothes from famous brands and later downpayments for houses or condos and expensive cars. As a result, they lack what I consider to be one of the most important skills in life: they don't know how to want things and work towards achieving them. There is nothing more miserable, I believe, that a life without goals and dreams. Not pipe dreams of the "I will become rich and famous without ever lifting a finger" variety but actual goals that a person works every day to achieve.

This is a very strange and disheartening paradox. People who work extremely hard their entire lives and achieve a lot end up unwittingly undermining their children. It seems like one is much better off growing up in a poor family because that gives you the drive and the skills to survive on your own. When I was in grad school, I knew that there was no trust fund and no inheritance from a grandma I could rely on. This was why I worked so hard to graduate in five years and find a paying job as soon as possible. If it hadn't been for the knowledge that I had to fend for myself because there was simply no other option, I might still be in grad school today partying every night and staring lazily at my unfinished dissertation during the day.

All of the leading scholars in my field whose life circumstances I happen to know well came from extremely modest (not to say dirt poor) families. I just can't think of anybody who was born with a silver or even golden spoon in their mouth and still managed to make something of themselves. (Sitting on the board of your Daddy's company or being placed in an academic position by your brilliant mother doesn't count as being successful in your own right.) As I wrote a couple of days ago, it so happened that I've spent a lot of time with rich people, and it's always the same story. Driven, hard-working parents and bored, inept, immature children who keep living through their boring teenage rebellion decades after they reached adulthood.

So my question to everybody is: do you know any people who grew up in families that were very comfortable financially but who still managed to become successful individuals in their own right? And if so, what did their families do to make it happen?

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16 comments:

Mel said...

My parents are upper middle class (250-500k income when I was growing up), and I have a PhD and am on the tenure track. I also knew several fellow grad students, a couple of whom came from insanely wealthy European and Latin American families, who went on to become successful scholars and business people--on their own merits as far as I can tell. I also know a few cases that support your observations. The split seems to be 50/50.

Clarissa said...

This is very heartening. Please share what your parents did to ensure that you turned out this great. :-)

Tim said...

Hmm maybe there is some kind of cycle at work here ?

Generation 1: People working long and hard to achieve a better life. Often establish a business, a store or the like.

Generation 2: Uses funds and support of generation 1 to achieve higher education, become PhD or Dr or something like that and become rich a what.

Generation 3: Basically, a spoiled brat, born with a silver spoon in every orifice and a total underachiever. Living a high standard of life for as long as the money valve from generation 2 is still open and falls very deep as soon as generation 2 stops gifting money.

Generation 4: Born into what is left of the high standard of generation 3 after generation 2 has locked the gold vault. Does not want to end up as a no-achiever like generation 3. Is basically generation 1.

This whole thing is not backed up by empirical evidence and is standing on shaky ground, of course :)

Mel said...

That's an interesting question. My parents came themselves from a poor, immigrant background. While they were always loving and generous and made it clear that we could always rely on them financially and otherwise, they stressed the importance of education, and higher education/grad school in particular. I rebelled in other ways, I guess--my political views and feminism are not their cup of tea. We all need our rebellions, I suppose, and I had other viable ways of rebelling. I also didn't feel listless or melancholic because of my intellectual curiosity, which they always praised. The other successful children of wealthy parents I mentioned seemed to have grown up in households where they were expected to be productive and successful. That doesn't always work of course, and there are a whole host of subtle factors contributing to the adult children's disposition and success that are difficult to analyze or even perceive without knowing the family intimately.

Pagan Topologist said...

How well off was Bill Gates as a child? He did attend Harvard, which makes it likely that he was fairly well off to begin with.

Anonymous said...

Bill Gates' family was quite well off, and he went on to become one of the richest people in the world and very likely changed the world more than most monarchs/presidents ever have.

-Mike

Clarissa said...

Bill Gates is a good example. maybe I need to do some research about his life.

Mel: thank you for contributing! It is very good to have a living and breathing example of how this is possible.

Spanish prof said...

Mark Zuckerberg's parents were also pretty well off. He attended Phillips Exeter Academy.

Clarissa said...

Who is Mark Zuckerberg?

Clarissa said...

Oh, he is the Facebook person, got it! I'm so behind the times, people, it's scary.

Clarissa said...

I also missed this fascinating comment from Tim. This breakdown really makes sense.

Leah Jane said...

My ex boyfriend. His grandparents were very wealthy, as well as patrons of the arts. His parents died in a murder/suicide when he was a little boy, and he was raised by his grandparents in their huge house, went to a private prep academy during the school year, and an expensive arts camp during the summer, and ended up going to Bard College to major in filmmaking. He's not without his flaws, but he is making it on his own and working hard to become a filmmaker, which I can respect.

Pen said...

There's a kid in my history class who's grandfather is a billionaire. I think the family's been so successful through several generations because the grandfather was always very stingy with his money. His father had to pay for his own education (I think his mother did, as well). My classmate will have to pay for college on his own, as well as for his own car and other amenities. It's kind of just expected that he work for his goals, like his grandfather did. Whether he will end up successful is unclear, but he's certainly well set-up for an independent success.

Shedding Khawatir said...

My family is fairly wealthy (although I don't have a trust fund or anything like that), but makes it quite clear that inherited money can be used only for education or housing that you will live in for a very long time, and even then, it's really better to save it for the future because you never know what will happen. Depending on my parents for support would be such an blow to my sense of independence and so shameful that I would rather work almost anywhere than allow that to happen, and so far it has worked out fine (they last supported me as an undergraduate 7 years ago). I am currently in a fully funded PhD program that I love, and will certainly graduate before my funding runs out. Obviously I cannot predict the future, but I intend to be successful in my career :-) My brother is also independently successful, although in a completely different and non-academic field.

sptc said...

It all depends upon whether they want you to be independent, or tie you to them. At any income level.

Clarissa said...

Sptc: that's profound. I think this is absolutely what it is.