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.

“Sometimes I think that the only people in this country who worry more about money than the poor are the very wealthy,” Kenny says. “They worry about losing it, they worry about how it’s invested, they worry about the effect it’s going to have. And as the zeroes increase, the dilemmas get bigger.”

Typically, he says, an inheritor’s angst arrives in early adolescence, and it blossoms when she arrives at college and, in a group of peers unaware of her wealth, discovers what it’s like to be treated as a “normal” person. She may keep her wealth hidden for a while, until at some point she’s outed and her friends suddenly look at her differently. In some cases, an inheritor isn’t even fully aware of how wealthy she is. “She might be 21,” Kenny says, “and one day her trust officer sits her down and says, ‘Here’s how it’s going to work. You’re going to get this many millions today, and this many millions when you turn 30.’ Then she’ll have to go back to college, and she’ll have to face her friends and her life as a wealthy person.” Often, Kenny says, she’ll then spend some time—in the worst cases, the rest of her natural life—“drifting,” without a career or purpose. As one respondent to the survey confesses, “I wish I had taken better control of my education … I had money in college, and I was never worried about learning for my future.”

One complaint that Kenny commonly hears in his practice and has found echoed in the survey results is the sense of isolation that extreme wealth can engender. “Wealth can be a barrier to connecting with other people,” writes the spouse of a tech wizard who cashed in to the tune of $80 million. “Not feeling you should share some of the stressors in your life (‘Yeah, wouldn’t I like to have your problems’), awkwardness re: who should pay at a restaurant.” The poor-little-rich-kid retort is so obvious—and seemingly so sensible—that the rich themselves often internalize it, and as a result become uncomfortable in their interactions with the non-wealthy. Once people cross a certain financial threshold, they have a tendency to hang out with one another, to enjoy the company of other people who know that money relieves some burdens but not others. This can pose particular problems for those at the lower end of the extreme-wealth scale: someone, for instance, who has “only” (I use the word advisedly) $5 million or so may find himself socializing with economic “peers” who are in fact 20 times as wealthy, and feeling pressure to spend money at a comparable rate. Perhaps that’s why, as Robert Frank notes in his 2007 book, Richistan, 20 percent of households with between $1 million and $10 million in assets in 2004 spent all their income—or more—in a frantic race to keep up with their newfound friends, the Gateses.

“One of the saddest phrases I’ve heard,” Kenny says of his time counseling the wealthy, is when the heir to a fortune is told, “‘Honey, you’re never going to have to work.’” The announcement is often made, Kenny explains, by a rich grandparent to a grandchild—and it rarely sounds as good to the recipient as to the one delivering it. Work is what fills most people’s days, and it provides the context in which they interact with others. A life of worklessness, however financially comfortable, can easily become one of aimlessness, of estrangement from the world. The fact that most people imagine it would be paradise to never have to work does not make the experience any more pleasant in practice.

Career advancement is the standard yardstick by which most people measure success, and without that yardstick, it’s not easy to assess whether one’s time is well spent. “Financial freedom can produce anxiety and hesitancy,” writes one respondent to the Boston College survey. “In my own life, I have been intimidated about my abilities because I inherited money.” If the rich do take jobs, they sometimes find that co-workers resent them on the grounds that they’re “taking away the jobs of people who need them.” The rich also leave jobs more quickly than others, for the simple reason that they can afford to do so. Karen Weisgerber, a senior adviser at the center who also works with Kenny at North Bridge, describes an heir she counseled who had earned an M.B.A. from a top-tier school and was an obviously intelligent man. He nonetheless moved from one high-tech job to another. “At some point, something would happen at each job that those who have to work for an income would learn to tolerate,” Weisgerber says. “And he’d just say, ‘I don’t want to deal with this.’ Eventually he had to say, ‘I don’t have a career.’”

In other cases, wealthy workers find that their work is viewed as a charade. One wealthy survey respondent who worked in the nonprofit sector says she would feel insecure about her position if she resumed working. “If I decided to get a job in the field, I think I would have trouble being seen as a colleague and not a donor,” she writes. As a result, she feels unable to take part fully in the only profession for which she has trained. A similar kind of self-doubt afflicts some of the “sudden” millionaires in the survey, whose wealth arrived seemingly by chance. “I just happened to hit the jackpot by choosing to work for the right company at the right time I have never thought that I in any way earned this amount of wealth,” one writes. “I’m just now feeling like I’m getting the hang of it.”

Just as wealth can aggravate, rather than alleviate, stresses surrounding work, so too can it complicate love, where Kenny says problems are “the rule and not the exception.” Despite the financial security a fortune affords, issues related to money cause the failure of many marriages and significant relationships. In the survey, one wealthy mother writes that she worries that the men in her daughters’ lives could feel “powerless,” and that “their role as provider has been usurped.” Wealthy people of both genders are wary of gold diggers—Does he love me or my money?—but at the same time fear that this wariness might make them mistrustful of genuine affection. Weisgerber describes a client who was handed a prenuptial agreement just two days before his wedding—a standard form, presented to anyone who married into his bride’s family. “It’s like marrying into the royal family,” the psychologist says, with its own rules and practices, to which the groom might be only a legally complicated footnote.

One issue that Kenny says comes up frequently is the question of at what point in a relationship to reveal one’s wealth—a disclosure he makes sound as fraught as telling your date you have herpes. “When do you tell someone that you have got a huge amount of money?” he asks rhetorically. “If you tell them too soon, you are going to worry that they want you for your money. If you wait too long, can the person really trust you?

“Freud was right,” Kenny concludes. “Love and work are the two things you have to do in life.” And great wealth, he says, often undermines both.

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Graeme Wood is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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