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.

But the overwhelming concern of the super-rich—mentioned by nearly every parent who participated in the survey—is their children. Many express relief that their kids’ education was assured, but are concerned that money might rob them of ambition. Having money “runs the danger of giving them a perverted view of the world,” one respondent writes. Another worries, “Money could mess them up—give them a sense of entitlement, prevent them from developing a strong sense of empathy and compassion.”

Enormous wealth takes care of so many day-to-day concerns, that the remaining ones grow that much more frustrating. The rich “want their children to make wise choices,” says Schervish, “because that’s what they can’t control.” Kenny, whose counseling practice serves mostly inheritors, says parents notice the danger signs quickly, in many cases because they have dealt with the same experiences. “They don’t think their kids are moral midgets. They just know there are not a lot of guideposts out there, because the world thinks if you have all that money, you’ve got it made in the shade. And if you don’t have it made in the shade—what the hell’s the matter with you?”

Many wealthy parents structure their children’s inheritances such that the money arrives only in discrete packets, timed to ensure that during their formative years they have no choice but to find a vocation. But Kenny hasn’t seen the strategy work, he says, because the children always know that the money is out there, and usually their friends do too. “We try to get our kids to do chores,” one survey respondent complains, but it’s hard to get them to mow the lawn when “we have an almost full-time gardener.” Even if parents succeed in setting up a trust to parcel out the inheritance according to guideposts—get a degree, get a job, raise a family, etc.—they run the risk of setting up bitter intergenerational feuds. As one survey respondent from a wealthy family explains, “I have grown up with a father who never wanted to give up control of his business but kept taunting me with the opportunity to step into his shoes.” His wife adds, “It has been difficult to feel financially independent when [my] spouse’s parents hold tight control over [our] children’s inheritance.”

As they get older, many children of privilege take either too many risks, because they know the consequences of failure are minimal, or too few, because they feel assured in their financial well-being. Kenny says they, like their parents, can grow bored with one line of work and make consequence-free shifts to other jobs—until finally they reach middle age and discover that they have put together the résumé of a dabbler and haven’t made the impact that they had hoped. “They get to be 50 years old,” says Kenny, “and all of a sudden they say to me, both in their love life and in their work life, ‘I have to stop hitting that reset button.’”

Eventually, Schervish and Kenny say, most wealthy people discover the satisfactions of philanthropy. Havens, who designs and conducts the center’s surveys and statistical analyses on the patterns of wealth and philanthropy, notes that almost all of the respondents to the Boston College survey had family foundations or donor-advised funds. Excluding two unusually wealthy foundations, these respondents invested an average of $11 million in these funds, in addition to household giving. But the experience of giving away their wealth—in addition to being pleasurable and empowering—also helps teach the giver that money sometimes carries its burden with it, and can harm or unsettle a recipient if given without caution. Anyone who has ever been approached by a panhandler knows what it’s like to reach for one’s wallet but then hesitate, wondering whether giving to this person at this time is the right thing to do. That dilemma only grows more difficult as the wallet gets bigger.

The survey offers lessons for the rest of us as well. Bob Kenny says it buttresses the observation he’s been making about the super-rich for years: that their wealth isn’t always worthy of envy, and is certainly not worth sacrificing one’s life to attain. “If we can get people just a little bit more informed, so they know that getting the $20 million or $200 million won’t necessarily bring them all that they’d hoped for, then maybe they’d concentrate instead on things that would make the world a better place and could help to make them truly happy,” Kenny says. “Don’t work too hard for money, because it isn’t going to get you much if you ignore everything else.” In their 1873 novel, The Gilded Age, Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner coined the nickname of an era and cataloged its excesses. But in one passage, they describe an untroubled, unwealthy family that had found a happy medium that many among the super-rich might envy:

Having only riches enough to be able to gratify reasonable desires, and yet make their gratifications always a novelty and a pleasure, the family occupied that just mean in life which is so rarely attained, and still more rarely enjoyed without discontent.

At its core, the survey underlines the fact that money may ease some worries, but others always remain. “Nobody has the excuse of ‘lack of money’ for not being at peace and living in integrity,” writes one survey respondent of his family, with a touch of bitterness. “If they choose to live otherwise, that’s their business.”

If anything, the rich stare into the abyss a bit more starkly than the rest of us. We can always indulge in the thought that a little more money would make our lives happier—and in many cases it’s true. But the truly wealthy know that appetites for material indulgence are rarely sated. No yacht is so super, nor any wine so expensive, that it can soothe the soul or guarantee one’s children won’t grow up to be creeps. When the rich man takes his last sip of Château d’Yquem 1959, he tips back the wineglass to find at its bottom an unforeseen melancholy. Like Leontes in The Winter’s Tale, he notes in horror, “I have drunk, and seen the spider.” It is as terrifying a realization in Saint-Tropez as it is anywhere else.

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Graeme Wood is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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