The Money Chase April 2011

Secret Fears of the Super-Rich

Does great wealth bring fulfillment? An ambitious study by Boston College suggests not. For the first time, researchers prompted the very rich—people with fortunes in excess of $25 million—to speak candidly about their lives. The result is a surprising litany of anxieties: their sense of isolation, their worries about work and love, and most of all, their fears for their children.

Schervish, the center’s sociologist and director, is 64, with three grown children and a book-filled office overlooking the Boston College campus. He’s from Detroit, but his voice bears a slight resemblance to those of Boston’s own “Click and Clack,” the wisecracking auto mechanics on National Public Radio’s Car Talk. Indeed, with his moustache and (most days) faded sweatshirt, he looks more like an auto mechanic than like someone who spends all day analyzing the psychic consequences of unimaginable sums of money. He often wears two pairs of glasses, one on top of the other, to help magnify the text on his computer.

Given his past, Schervish would seem an unlikely candidate to study the wealthy. As a young man, he trained for the Jesuit priesthood and beginning in 1966 was bound by a vow of poverty. He was ordained in 1975 and earned his doctorate in sociology from the University of Wisconsin while serving in the campus Catholic center. But in 1981, as a professor at Boston College, he found the demands of priesthood, such as celibacy, too strenuous and left the order, finally and definitively trading the pursuit of heavenly treasures for the study of earthly ones. His work on the wealthy remains strongly informed by Christian (as well as Sufi and Buddhist) traditions, however, and is salted with untranslated Latin and Greek, and citations from French mystics as well as from federal reports on wealth.

Early in his academic career, Schervish was a committed Democratic Socialist. But around 1990, he began interviewing wealthy people and decided that his Marxist instinct to criticize the rich was misguided. “I realized good and evil are equally distributed across the economic spectrum and not particular to the wealthy or the poor,” he says. “A lot of wealth holders were very sincerely concerned about others and were doing something about it.” His recent papers, many co-authored with John Havens, the associate director and senior research associate at the center, have done much to exonerate the rich from the charge that they are more tightfisted than the non-rich. (They’re not, Schervish and Havens say: as individuals move up the wealth scale, they give away a greater share of their assets.)

Although Schervish may defend the wealthy, he clearly refuses to hold them in awe. He likes to quote Deuteronomy: “Behold, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse.” As he explains, “Money is like fire: it will warm your feet or it will burn your socks off.” In the complaints voiced by the survey’s wealthy respondents, he believes he hears echoes of religious figures such as the Buddha, who gave up the life of a playboy prince to achieve enlightenment; and of Saint Ignatius himself, the 16th-century Basque nobleman who repudiated his wealth and founded Schervish’s own Jesuit order.

“Some of the respondents don’t yet know the depth of the yearning in their words,” Schervish says. “I hear Buddha and Ignatius very much saying that you have to discern your path and get rid of the things that are encumbrances. That’s what these people are trying to find out: Do I have what I want? Am I screwing my kids up? They have the quantity, now they have to figure out the quality of their wants. They don’t all say that—some are stuck way before that. But this is what’s going on, whether they realize it or not.

“I never forgot the concerns that I learned as a Jesuit. But I got rid of the absolute certainties that I had about how to achieve them,” Schervish says, adding, “Trump not, lest you be trumped.” The rich, he points out, could easily ask him why he is teaching sociology instead of donning sackcloth, selling his possessions, and giving everything to the poor. “I found that there is no telling people what needs need attending to, because needs are infinite. And they’d be better off channeling their work through inspiration, rather than dictation by others.”

In early 2009, roughly 115,000 American households were warming or singeing their toes on fortunes of $25 million or more—a population that had increased more than threefold since 1989, according to the center’s Havens. The broadest distinction among this group is between those who primarily inherited their money and those who primarily earned it. The former are members of what Warren Buffett famously dubbed “the lucky sperm club.” These inheritors sometimes display the stereotypical arrogance of privilege—the fast cars and wanton lifestyles—but the more introspective among them contend with worries that they’ll lack the motivation to accomplish anything in life or to escape the shadows of their parents. This self-doubt is magnified by the knowledge that they’re unlikely to find sympathy from anyone other than their fellow inheritors.

Respondents who earned their wealth worry less about their self-worth. But unlike the inheritors, they have to contend with a major life transition, from the workaday world to a world where work is voluntary. Some friends disappear, and others—perhaps attracted by the newfound wealth—appear. There’s even a subcategory of almost accidental earners, who signed on with the right company at the right time and received stock-option windfalls (“sudden-wealth syndrome,” as it’s sometimes called). Such wealth can feel almost like an inheritance, except that in these cases it’s less a matter of lucky sperm than of a lucky job choice.

Regardless of the sources of their wealth, one thing the rich have in common is a severe allergy to discussing their dilemmas in public. “You’d be amazed how many people aren’t calling me this week,” Kenny said to me when I visited his office. He had told some of his survey respondents that he would be talking to a reporter, and he was convinced they had arranged their schedules to avoid any possible contact with me.

The respondents had answered Kenny’s calls for cooperation in the first place partly because he counsels the rich professionally through North Bridge Advisory Group, a Boston consultancy that works with individuals and families on complex money and inheritance issues. Like Schervish, Kenny—who at 58 has graying hair and the tranquillity of someone who spends his time talking to people who have more troubles than he does—took a roundabout path to studying the wealthy. For two decades, he counseled adults who were working with high-risk kids, many of them poor, in New York City, a job he remembers fondly and says he has considered resuming. In 2001, a call from a colleague brought him to an organization called More Than Money, which a group of inheritors had convened to help them deal with psychological issues related to wealth. He found that the rich—especially the inheritors of vast fortunes—have unique sets of worries, and face the added difficulty of knowing that many despise or envy them. “Often the word rich becomes a pejorative,” Kenny says. “It rhymes with bitch. I’ve been in rooms and seen people stand up and say, ‘I’m Bob Kenny, and I’m rich.’ And then they burst into tears.”

He isn’t the first to identify the rich as a psychologically vulnerable group—the psychiatrist Robert Coles devoted the fifth volume of his Pulitzer-winning Children of Crisis series to “the well-off and the rich in America”—but Kenny has become an important confidant and adviser to people of means, someone who can sympathize with their particular concerns. “They’re having a bad day, and they can say to me, ‘I’m having a really bad day,’ and I’m not going to say, ‘Well, why don’t you give me the money?’” he explains. “They don’t have a lot of that in the world.”

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Graeme Wood is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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