Here’s a problem many of us might wish we had: being so rich that we have to start worrying about its effect on our children. It seems there are suddenly a lot more people around who fall into this category. So many, in fact, that the U.S. investment bank Merrill Lynch has reportedly begun offering psychiatric counseling services to the children of its “overnight-tycoon” clients — those people who have made millions or, in an astonishing number of cases, billions, riding America’s stock-fueled rocket to the stars.
Besides having to do something with their newfound wealth (although the ever-helpful Merrill Lynch can help them out there as well), instantly rich parents are understandably concerned about their children contracting “affluenza,” a malady with two simple symptoms: a) having more money than you know what to do with, and b) thinking it somehow makes you better than other people.
Of course, the very, very rich — to adapt Christ’s observation about the poor — have been with us always: a King Midas here, a Venetian doge there, Rothschilds and Vanderbilts and Gettys and Tsutsumis by the dozen. None of them, presumably, had the benefit of “financial-parenting” advice as they struggled to cope with the indolent and overprivileged teenage monsters haunting their households.
Presumably, too, despite breeding the odd bad egg, they all figured out how to plant in their offspring the idea that enormous wealth carries with it enormous responsibilities. Well, true, we don’t know much about the little Midases or the baby doges, but numerous charities, museums, art galleries, hospitals and academic institutions worldwide can testify to the survival of the philanthropic habit in successive generations of the modern superrich. And U.S. politics, in particular, testifies to the success of many wealthy American clans — of whom the Kennedys and the Bushes are just the best-known examples — in imbuing their children with the ideal of public service.
But figuring it out for yourself is not the modern way, which is why we have banks stepping into the breach where people’s grandmothers or their own common sense used to be. One wonders what concept of self-reliance a child would derive from being chauffeured down to the bank every time his parents have a child-rearing problem (Merrill Lynch is certainly giving the phrase “full-service bank” a whole new meaning).
The irony is that the advice such families are likely to get there is nothing that wouldn’t apply if they had never hit the stock jackpot at all. Different in the details, admittedly, since these counseling services are available only to clients “worth $100 million or more.” Most people don’t stay up nights wondering how much to keep and how much to give away. But the same in principle, as a bank spokesman confirmed last week in a comment on the psychiatrists’ probable advice to newly rich teenagers: “The fundamental thing we are looking to impart,” he said, “is the value of money.”
So it turns out that the problem we wished we had is one we have after all, for that, in a nutshell, is surely what every family tries to impart to its children. Only the poor have no problem doing so, since they know the value of money without having to be taught it. “Affluenza” is manifestly a problem in Japan, both for its generally well-to-do citizens, who have trouble spotting signs of their own recession, and for its community of handsomely paid expatriates. Kids with more money than they know what to do with, and the cocky attitude that goes with it, are a familiar sight in Japanese cities.
The only way to learn the value of money, besides not having any, is to earn it, which is why modest part-time jobs are so much better for teenagers — even billionaires’ teenagers — than immoderate allowances and indiscriminate handouts. Clearly, the more money a family has and the bigger a teenager’s prospective inheritance, the less compelled he or she will feel to find a job. But young people are also influenced by their parents’ attitudes to work and money. Work hard, live simply, give away what you have in excess of your family’s needs, rein in allowances, encourage children to earn at least some of their own spending money: Any family that lives by these precepts, no matter how rich, won’t have a problem with “affluenza.” The rich ones will just have that much more to give away (Merrill Lynch says it will advise multimillionaire teenagers of “the joys of philanthropy.”)
It used to be spiritual advisers who warned people of the burdens and perils of great wealth. Now it is investment banks and their “relationship managers.” But the message, rightly, appears to have stayed the same.
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