Pity the poor billionaires. An authoritative report by UBS and PricewaterhouseCoopers on the world’s richest people notes that wealth held by this group — less than 1,400 people — fell by $300 billion in 2015. No need to lose sleep, however: They still control $5.1 trillion, or more money than the entire Japanese economy.

Significantly, 460 of those billionaires will hand over $2.1 trillion — a sum equal to the gross domestic product of India — to heirs over the next two decades, the largest transfer of wealth in human history. That shift will have profound implications for those families and their societies, as a new generation of the ultra-rich has very different ideas about how to use its wealth.

Over the last 35 years, a small number of individuals have generated extraordinary wealth; the amount of money controlled by billionaires has increased seven times during the last two decades. Now, it is feared that this “Second Gilded Age” may be coming to an end as wealth generation loses momentum.

The number of billionaires continues to grow — 210 people joined the club in 2015 — but nearly as many others (160 in all) lost a comma in their net worth. The largest number of billionaires lives in the United States — nearly half the total wealth in the study — but the most dynamism is in Asia, where a new billionaire emerges every three days, the majority (71 percent) of them in China.

Growing wealth in China reflects that government’s emphasis on economic reform and innovation, both of which promote entrepreneurialism. China’s modernization and urbanization have resulted in a rapidly growing middle class that also spurs business development — and wealth for those who can tap these markets.

While Japan has its ultra wealthy, it goes practically unmentioned in the report. That is both good and bad. The extreme inequality reflected in such concentrations of money is troubling. But the absence of an entrepreneurial spark is worrisome.

Since 85 percent of Asia’s billionaires are first generation, passing their inheritance on to children raises basic questions about wealth and purpose. Increasingly, heirs are focusing on values, not valuables, looking for ways to give back to society rather than merely acquiring more baubles. Philanthropy is on the rise with more people seeking to “do good by doing well.” That is more than just a notable sentiment. The amount of money that these people will yield will generate power influence equal to that of governments.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.