More Than Money
Issue #14

Young and Wealthy

Table of Contents

“Seize the Opportunities, But Be Prepared for Challenges”

Financial abundance "pumps up the volume" of daily life for young adults. Because wealth offers extraordinary opportunities, it often heightens life's good and bad, its clarity and confusion. Paradoxically, wealth also can be numbing, cushioning its recipients from the costs of their actions and from some hard realities faced by most people in the world.

How do we, the editors, see these effects play out in the lives of the people we interviewed? What advice can we pass on?

Independence from parents: Autonomy is almost always an issue in the 20's, rich or not. Parents strive to let go, and young adults struggle with how to use elders' guidance yet build lives on their own terms. Wealth certainly makes it easier to separate from parents physically, as it eliminates the financial need to live at home or stay nearby to help out. Yet, for inheritors and their parents, it can be far harder to disentangle emotionally.

No matter how skillfully parents bestow wealth and walk that fine line between nurturance and control, inheritors' lives are deeply affected by their parents money--not just during a few years of support, but often for decades or a lifetime. (Young wealth earners, generally have the opposite situation: their wealth and "success" tend to increase their self-esteem and independence from family. They may, however, face the confusion of moving into a different class position than their parents.)

Our advice to both generations: don't expect passing on or receiving wealth to be a piece of cake. The more we learn about money, the more humbled we are by how loaded it is with complex, emotionally-charged meanings.

Parents, don't give money to your kids unless you are prepared to have them go their own way with it. If you are controlling the money through trusts, don't be surprised if you receive anger and resentment as well as appreciation.

Inheritors, be prepared for your parents to have a hard time with your money choices. Learn about your parents' interests and concerns. Ask them directly, even if you think you already know. If possible, use their support, but also get support outside the family system, including from others dealing with similar issues.

Friendships and Love: In college, many people raised wealthy get to know people from a wider range of class backgrounds than ever before in their lives. Yet, fearing rejection, exploitation, or ridicule (and recognizing that economic privilege can be alienating to those who are struggling),many keep their wealth a secret from classmates and workmates.

Whether the differences are imagined or real, having a lot more (or a lot less) than others can hinder the building of trust. People pretend the differences aren't there, or don't matter. The resulting lack of openness and honesty creates distance, and, at times, a surreal numbness. This can be particularly hard when trying to form romantic relationships, and leads many to narrow their social life and wrap themselves with people as similar as possible.

We don't want to minimize the challenges of honest, cross-class relationships. Yet we are convinced that silence about money is part of what holds the class system in place. Open, personal discussion about how money affects all our lives (and the systems that create disparities) is essential if humanity is ever to design a balanced economic system in which everyone can thrive.

Start by taking measured risks with people you trust the most. Check out groups that offer training in cross-class dialogue (See page 15). Connect to wealth networks where you can discuss issues openly. Then gradually expand to wider circles; be ready to be challenged and to invite new perspectives.

Work: Finding one's niche in work is almost always a challenge. In the current economy, the majority of young adults are facing a painful lack of job opportunities and financial safety nets. These conditions intensify the differences between those with wealth and their peers.

Those with financial abundance can step outside the grim job market and more readily pursue their dreams. While many young adults flounder with this overwhelming freedom, most of our interviewees had seized the opportunity and were pouring themselves into a chosen field. Many were unabashedly using privilege to either advance their work, or to live more comfortably as they carried out less-lucrative but creative, heart-felt work. As people pursue their dreams, some forget that class position, as well as brains, talent, and hard work, is enabling their success.

Those that do stay aware of their position are sometimes troubled with guilt and confusion, and hold back from using wealth as a tool. Our vision is that people will find a middle path: pursue their dreams, engage their wealth without apology, and still creatively assist those around them and use their clout to further fair public policies.

Citizenship: It is not uncommon for people in their 20's to long to "make a difference" in the world, yet to feel lost about how. Young adults often have a more visceral reaction to injustice than do older people, and wealth can intensify this feeling into an almost unbearable burden. As one 23-year old said poignantly, "I feel such a heavy responsibility living in a world so divided between 'haves' and 'have-nots'. How can I use what I have, act on my commitment to help others, but still have a life?"

Wealth alone does not bestow its owners with the power to fix things; it needs to be coupled with insight, determination, and perspective about how much time, energy, and patience it takes to make personal or social change. Idealistic people (both young and old) often give up when projects they invest in, give to, or take part in don't achieve their goals within a few years.

In the 1990s, many young people are sick of the state of the world and leery of public life. Our interviewees spoke of using wealth ethically, but largely within the limited circles of their friendships or work fields. Many seemed focused on developing their power as individuals, not as citizens.

Still, a few hold dreams of supporting collective action for a better world. Says philanthropy activist Tracy Hewat:

Think about it: we are experiencing the biggest intergenerational transfer of wealth this country has ever seen; we also have greater poverty, social chaos, and class differential than ever before. If young people like myself stay isolated and silent about our wealth, let it sit in the bank rather than using it along with our time and our work, we will miss an unprecedented opportunity to create positive change. On the other hand, if we are smart politically, take charge of our money, and collaborate with other activists (both wealthy and not), our generation will have a powerful impact, both on our immediate communities and on the world we share.

We couldn't agree more. What if young investors started insisting businesses live up to higher measures of social responsibility? How might young philanthropists turn the status-quo of the giving world on its ear? What if the generations, instead of acting against each other or in isolation, teamed up productively and combined experience with verve?

We can't wait to see.

-the editors


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