American Culture

Let's have some empathy for rich kids

by JS O’Brien

I feel sorry for rich kids.  Seriously.  Most of us tend to think that being born with a silver scepter in the mouth is the luckiest thing that could happen to a kid, but it’s not.  Oh, I suppose being born rich in a society with little opportunity for anyone other than those born to wealth would be a very lucky thing, indeed, but in a rich society, the luckiest thing that can happen to a kid is to be born smart and/or talented … and poor.

Being wealthy from birth is a curse.

I began thinking about this because of this post on George W. Bush and his soon-to-be-built library at Southern Methodist University.  If you’ll check the comments, you’ll find a little debate about nepotism.  Jeff, a frequent commenter, seems to feel nepotism is a good thing.  I don’t, and I base my opposition to it not only on its deleterious and demotivating effects on society as a whole, but because of observations I have made of those born into wealth, and the price they have to pay for it.

Now, I used to feel empathy for rich kids because I thought, “How awful it must be to move to the top of an organization not knowing if it’s because you earned it or because Daddy got you the job.”  Having now conversed at length with people sporting surnames like “Weyerhaeuser” and “Nordstrom” (among others), I no longer worry much about that particular issue.  I’ve found that scions of these families tend to look on their companies as birthrights.  They don’t think about the issue of merit and the number of people working for them who are much smarter, harder-working, more creative, and more talented than they are.  It just doesn’t occur to them.Â

This is why I don’t have much empathy for W on this issue.  I suspect it has never once occurred to him that he doesn’t deserve a job he sucks at, or that all the failures in his life have anything to do with his personal shortcomings.  Like others of his class, he probably sees the Presidency as his birthright the same way brother Neil probably saw being on the board of the failed Silverado Savings and Loan, and brother Jeb viewed the governorship of Florida, as being their just rewards for choosing the right daddy.  W will be attacked, throughout his life, as the second coming of Warren G. Harding (a guy who, like W, sure looked like a president should look), and perhaps the only American president worse than Harding, but it will go right over his head.  I suspect that, to W, being good at the job was never the issue.  It was all about his birthright.

On other issues, though, I have a great deal of sympathy for recovering adults of wealthy parents.  Here are some real people I know or have known (names changed, of course) who have been childhood victims of wealth.

Roberta thought it was a lot of fun to steal boyfriends and then dump them.  As she grew older, she graduated to husbands.  Her MO was always the same.  Though of relatively modest looks, she had the best cosmetics and prostheses, as well as the best help and training in using them.  She also knew how to flirt, and held out the promise of enormously interesting and kinky sex; a promise she fulfilled (I’m told).  It was not unusual for Roberta, even while a college student, to buy her next, unsuspecting lover a sailboat, car, condo, or what have you.  And, of course, she always bought the jilted girl or wife something expensive to make everything all right.Â

In fact, Roberta was always buying things for people, or taking them along with her on expensive, foreign travel.  You’d think gratitude for all she gave people would have given her an enormous circle of friends, but oddly, it hasn’t worked out that way.

Gary’s family owned a great deal of land.  Unfortunately, it was tobacco land, and tobacco isn’t the money-producer it once was.  So, Gary had to find a job.  Unfortunately, Daddy had died some years before and Mama was incapacitated by Alzheimer’s, so he didn’t have the contacts to find the kind of job that allowed him to meet his obligations.  Susie, his wife of 20 years, hadn’t signed up for life just barely making ends meet, so after fucking half the county (that is to say, all the men), she divorced him, taking the kids and 50% of what little was left, including the beautiful, ancestral home.Â

Today, Gary lives in a two-bedroom ranch, two counties west of where he grew up, where no one knows him and how far he’s fallen.  He hates his job.  He hates his new wife and her kids.Â

Alice’s uncle made a fortune founding one of the most successful mutual funds in history.  The fund was so successful that it has been closed to new investors since the 1970s.  The uncle decided to endow a charitable organization in which any of his children, nieces, and nephews could work making good money and living in one of his Park Avenue apartments, rent free.  On a lark, Alice once became a cocktail waitress and had a great deal of fun picking up bar tabs for her friends, then taking them home to her marble and Italian-tile, 16-room Park Avenue apartment to sleep it off.Â

Alice’s uncle died, then her aunt, but the endowment and the jobs remained.  Except that the foundation was run by a board of directors, and they began to forget that the family deserved good jobs.  Alice got fired (for good cause, it would seem).  Her husband, the body-builder, has since moved on to a richer girl.

Then, there’s Rich, the trustafarian who married a girl whose daddy owns several retail chains.  Rich finished his bachelor’s degree on the 10-year plan.  Toward the end of his student career, he discovered a passion for rocks, especially rare crystal formations.  He started selling them to collectors, and was just beginning to be successful when the father-in-law offered him the reins at one of his companies.  Rich took the job.  The last time I saw him, he looked utterly miserable.

I’m sure others have many stories like these (Paris Hilton comes to mind), but perhaps these examples are misleading in that they miss the really important, everyday tragedy of being born wealthy.  My wife and I began life very poor.  We lived in a tiny studio apartment with a view of a busy street.  Our entertainment, more often than not, was to buy a very long book that I would proceed to read aloud until we finished.  This is how we read Shogun, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Winds of War, and many other novels.  Eating out, even at a fast-food joint, was a wonderful treat we could only rarely afford.  We delighted in long walks, sunsets, well-written letters, flying homemade kites, and close friends.Â

We’re no longer poor. We have many more acquaintances and many fewer friends.  We eat out often and take no delight in it.  I haven’t flown a kite in years.

But at least I once had a life in which the things I could buy didn’t get between me and life’s truly enjoyable offerings.Â

Rich kids never get that kind of life.

14 replies »

  1. To some extent the rich are captive to their contexts, and growing up privileged is bound to come with some blind spots.

    Of course, as I’ve often said, all other things being equal, ’tis better to have than to have not. There comes a time where no matter how you grew up you have to accept responsibility for the conduct of your life. I’ve fought some battles that resulted from my upbringing, too, but at some point you have to acknowledge that an excuse for failure isn’t quite the same thing as success. 🙂

    I can feel all kinds of bad about where some rich folks have arrived, but in the end they’ve had every opportunity to choose and act on those choices. My wife and I recently had a debate over Britney, for instance, and while I see her point about all the things Brit clearly grew up without, what is it that she needs, right now, that she can’t get?

    Great piece, JS. Hell of a thought-provoker.

  2. Dr. S said:

    what is it that she needs, right now, that she can’t get?

    Certainly not therapy. That’s why I don’t feel any sympathy for or empathy with the rich, however troubled.

    They can buy all they need from therapists.

  3. Doc Slammy,

    I hear what you’re saying about accepting responsibility for success, but it strikes me that there are many people in this world (and I’m not accusing you of this) who would watch parents cut off their children’s arms and legs and then insist that the children are responsible for their own success.

    Just because the wounds are not visible doesn’t mean they’re not there.

  4. I would very much like to throttle Ms B’s parents and take Ms B away to an island somewhere for a year of music (not hers), good books, simple fayre, bare feet, sea fishing and tree climbing.

  5. JS: Agree completely. And while I don’t like to make the uglier moments of my own personal life public very often, I’m speaking as a guy who was, at the age of 3, pretty much given away by his parents. Does that leave a mark? Yup. And to some extent, I still fight the battles that resulted from it to this day.

    I can’t begin to set myself up as any kind of example, nor can I be too harsh on those who never quite get over what mom and dad did to them. I can only suggest that in the long run, I have greater respect for those who overcome the curses of poverty than I do those fighting the demons of affluence.

  6. Doc,

    I know you’re aware that, during the Civil Right march era, it was common for Southern whites to point to successful African-Americans like Sammy Davis, Jr., Sidney Poitier, or anyone else they could find as proof that there was no discrimination. After all, if Sammy and Sidney could make it, any black could, right?

    Sam, you were blessed with extraordinary intelligence. I’m sure that, more than anything, saved you. Put an average person in your circumstances and things might not have turned out so well.

    I agree wtih you, though, that I tend to hold those who overcame poverty in higher regard than those who managed to become decent, productive human beings even though they never had to earn anything in their lives. But take Roberta, for example. She was raised to think that love and money were interchangeable. If Daddy and Mommy wanted to show love, it came from a wallet or purse. As a result, she became a desperate seeker of real love, never having the slightest idea what it is or how to get it. One day, I think Roberta will kill herself. I hope not, but that’s where I’d lay the odds.

  7. Great stuff, JS.

    What perhaps I would like to see from the wealthy (having dealt with some of them up close and personal) would be a sense of empathy FROM them TOWARD others. It’s that lack of affect they suffer from that I find most troubling. And which has always made me more inclined to lean toward Robespierre more than toward Louis XVI.

    As a Southerner with “background,” I’ve always carried a certain amount of baggage of my own (as I’ve heard that you do). It’s not the same as being wealthy, but one thing this wonderfully written piece has done is get me to thinking about the connection between having “breeding” and having wealth.

    Might be worth exploring, don’t you think…?

  8. JS: I can’t really disagree at all. I think what we have here is a case of both/and. There’s no denying your point, and I think my response could have been stated better, looking back.

    Here’s what I think I was trying to say. If mom and dad cut your arms off, you’re well and truly fucked because there’s nothing you can do to get your arms back. That said, you’ve been dealt a hand and your only choices are to play it or fold. This is where my earlier comment on accountability was aimed. There comes a time where no matter what has been done to you, you have to take the helm of your own life and do the best you can with it.

    This doesn’t mean mom and dad aren’t guilty as hell and it surely doesn’t mean you ever had anything like a fair shot.

  9. Very interesting thread. JS provides some very interesting anecdotes about rich kids who grew up. It would be interesting to quantify the success/failure rate of adults that were born rich. My neighborhood has some of the richest people in the country, and I find diversity of the people to be consistent with all socioeconomic levels. Success and failure seem to be a human condition, not a socioeconomic one. I’m sure one can find anecdotes about people at the lower end of the socioeconomic that would parallel the ones offered by JS.

    JS, that was a good post and has caused me to wonder about my son. Although I grew up in comfortable surroundings, we were by no means really rich. However, I indulged all of my son’s academic fantasies, and sent him to some pretty good schools. He has adopted that same sense of entitlement that you described in your post. However, I think that all will turn out well for him…..there’s always nepotism:)


  10. Jim:

    I agree with you. The wealthy generally have little or no empathy towards those less well off than they. I suppose never having to worry about where the next meal will come from can do that to you. Worse, I’ve had to listen, on more than one occasion, to their moralizing over how anyone can be wealthy if they just try hard enough.

    This from people who never had to try at anything in their lives.

    On the other hand, Jim, I’ve also run across a surprising number of people of great talent who were born into modest means, became wealthy, then decided that those who aren’t wealthy are their moral inferiors.

  11. Jeff:

    “Success and failure seem to be a human condition, not a socioeconomic one.”

    Cannot but agree with that statement. My father’s family come from a long line of poverty, his mother was an orphan and his father who, in spite winning an educational scholarship, was made to abandon it and work as a labourer from age 13.

    They had 5 children. Of the four children who survived – two were outright successes (one becoming a conservative activitist, her husband was elected Mayor and he was a freemason, she has been a Magistrate for over 20 years and runs her own business plus owns property. Dad, becoming occasional college lecturer, manager, health expert, scrooge, best parent of good intentions who from time to time really did stupid things with his own daughter – for example giving my gift away on my birthday, and leftist activitist to the world). Dad was very anti inheritance. He felt in his younger days that people should not inherit wealth. Now worth about 600,000.00 pounds stirling (post divorce) he is not of that opinion. Of the 5 only 2 did well economically.

    Empathy is not a preserve of those less wealthy. Having met many people with considerable wealth myself through military functions, private schools plus and ex boyfriend I discovered that those with real status and power are careful and guarded. When you have money people see that and not you. Wouldn’t you guard that which people often desire more from you…your dosh? Personally, it irritates the hell out of me that newspapers have such freedoms to follows those with wealth, just because they are wealthy. So much more interesting to the jackals to see the rich bitches bleed than the poverty stricken ones…

    Now that my brother is purchasing a house in excess of a million pounds sterling I asked him should I think of him as a millionaire? He said no, just someone who can get way more credit….

    He started out fitting kitchen marble tops himself and now employs and runs an organisation to do that and much more with granite etc.

    I am glad that the really wealthy have an established tradition of philanthropy and charity, that they understand the forces of jealousy, drive, greed and aspiration that is invoked in others by there mere existence.

    I smile when I hear about Mr & Mrs Obama not being afraid to embrace great wealth, or Robert de Niro or Oprah Winfrey et al.

    It was once said being poor does not mean you are criminal. Equally that should apply to those with great wealth. If either group is caught with their fingers in the till, pulling stunts or breaking the law that is down to them as individuals.

    …and I look forward to lots of art postings from you. I am always in the mind improvement market.


  12. Elaine, I’m going set up a slide show page on my blog with our entire collection shown. As it is, I’ve only posted about a third of it. I can’t say that I will do this today or tomorrow, but it will get done sooner or later. Meanwhile, I will scatter pieces among my boring, greedy Republican…screw the little guy posts:)