The gap between the rich and the poor has been growing wider for some time, but the really rich have now achieved escape velocity. They have far more money than ever before—and a mind-boggling number of decisions to make about spending it. The “ultrarich"—loosely defined as those with investable assets of more than $30 million—often lead tremendously complicated lives. There are approximately 30,000 such people based in the United States, and nearly 50,000 elsewhere in the world, according to Capgemini and Merrill Lynch’s World Wealth Report of 2005. They are the aristocracy of a new Gilded Age—and providing services to them has turned into a gold rush.
Becoming wealthy in the first place might seem like the hard part, but once a person has money, other real challenges present themselves: What kind of rich person does one want to be? Is a sprawling mansion or a slender townhouse preferable? Should one build a game park or an English garden? And then there is the matter of figuring out who should look after all these things. To hear the caretakers of the ultrarich describe it, the wealthiest among us are like dinghies adrift on the open sea—lost in their money and the endless options that come with it. (You could call it “Overwhelmed Billionaire Syndrome.”) Fortunately, the free market will provide: an army of experts has sprung up to help them navigate their lives.
One of these experts is Natasha Pearl, a former management consultant who was trekking through Nepal five years ago when she realized what she was put on earth to do: help the wealthiest people make their lives easier. She came home and transformed herself into a “lifestyle consultant,” and she hasn’t looked back.
Some of Pearl’s customers have problems that the merely upper-middle class could hardly conceive of. She has helped parents look into buying a $40,000 dressage horse for their daughter to ride while away at college, sorted through museum-quality art collections forgotten in storage, and found an expert to negotiate aircraft leases. One family considered hiring her to find public- relations specialists who could help with crisis management—basically, to keep them out of the news and off the Forbes 400 list. (Getting on the list may be a triumph in some circles, but in others it’s even better to stay off.) And a young hedge-fund manager asked Pearl if she could find someone to identify the best parties in New York, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles each week—and to make sure he was invited. (She turned down this assignment.)
Business for consultants like Pearl isn’t likely to slow down anytime soon. A look at the wealthiest Americans reveals that those at the very pinnacle—the top 0.1 percent—have done so well in recent years that everyone else is eating their (gold) dust. An analysis by David Cay Johnston in The New York Times found that the average annual inflation-adjusted income of this group increased by two and a half times, to $3 million, from 1980 to 2002. The average net worth of those on the Forbes 400 list has mushroomed in the last twenty years, rising from $390 million to $2.8 billion, and the number of U.S. billionaires has increased over that same time from thirteen to 374. By some measures, the fortunes of today’s richest people are as concentrated as those of their predecessors in the Roaring Twenties and the robber-baron era of the late 1800s.
In the meantime, America’s less fortunate have seen their share of the country’s wealth drop—but there’s nothing like shopping to ease the pain! Lubricated with cheap credit and the social acceptability of carrying huge amounts of personal debt, Americans at all income levels pile into the luxury marketplace alongside those who can actually afford to shop there. And so the truly wealthy have had to get more creative about spending money in order to distinguish themselves from the shopgirls waiting on them, who are likely to be carrying the same Hermès handbag (or at least a convincing knockoff). One way to set themselves apart is by pouring resources into experience and “lifestyle.”
All manner of professionals see a future in whispering into billionaires’ ears. (It would be a decidedly “soft” science, but one can imagine “helicopter-fleet management” becoming a university degree.) Like any subculture, this piece of the service sector comes with its own assumptions and its own delusions. Its practitioners are as slick and on-message as a group of Wharton-trained management consultants. Plenty of self-aggrandizing jargon gets thrown around: terms like ultra-high net worth are mixed in with Jack Welch–style business talk; rich people are principals, and even the most minute aspects of their lives require management in order to be optimized. This work requires subtlety, even amateur psychoanalysis; those providing the services are selling trust to people with unlimited resources, coaxing them into articulating their dissatisfactions and then doing something about them (which usually means spending boatloads of money). Sometimes pie charts are involved.