Last week I was in Colorado presenting at the Annual Rendezvous of the Purposeful Planning Institute. This is a great organization where a wide variety of professionals meet to develop and share best practices for enlightened planning around the broadest definition of wealth (way more than money).
My colleague and friend Kristen Heaney and I developed a breakout session about wealthism. Joanie Bronfman originally coined the term “wealthism” in her 1987 doctoral dissertation at Brandeis University; Merriam-Webster defines an “ism” as, “an oppressive and especially discriminatory attitude or belief.”
Wealthism, it follows, is a discriminatory attitude toward wealthy people simply because they are wealthy. An interesting twist is that with racism or sexism, for example, the oppressive forces are directed at groups without social power. But in the case of wealthism, the negativity is directed at a group with significant social power.
We walked attendees through exercises designed to help them identify an aspect of their own identity that had become connected to shame through experience. Our intention was to help people understand the harmful nature of labels and stereotypes, and how they can become internalized by members of the group at which they are directed and, more specifically, how wealthy people can experience wealth negatively.
Attendees shared powerful examples. A woman whose father would only acknowledge her physical beauty in spite of her extensive academic and professional accomplishments… a gay man navigating a barrage of negative stereotypes and trying to maintain a sense of pride… a couple of attendees who took the risk to describe their families’ wealth openly in the group -they described how easy it is to feel that openness about their wealth is dangerous and something to be kept secret.
“Coming out” for a person of wealth can have similar dynamics to a gay person coming out. Will people accept me? Will relationships change or become damaged? Will I be attacked? Discussion moved to the challenges people of wealth face; there was agreement that because people of wealth have social and financial power, others feel more free to attack them aggressively, even in public, and sometimes behind their backs. This can be done even by professionals who serve them (think: sarcastic comments made privately by professionals about the “problems” of the wealthy and “trustafarians”), and in ways widely considered “incorrect” when it comes to other “isms”.
If wealthy people are thrifty and modest, they are seen as miserly, cheap and selfish. If they spend their money freely, they are showy, arrogant and “filthy rich.” It can be a no-win situation.
The upshot: for members of any group absorbing society’s negative and judgmental barbs, it is essential to find mentors and role models within the ranks – someone respected and admired to offer a counterbalance to shame.
Wealth can certainly make life easier and more comfortable in many ways. However, it offers a host of complications, particularly for the person who values diverse social relationships and an un-closeted existence.
What is the Lesson?
Enterprising Families: Be sure to expose children and young adults to role models and mentors, people in wealthy families who share your values and have a healthy sense of pride in what their families have accomplished aside from simply financial success. Have open conversations, as developmentally appropriate, about the complexity of monetary wealth and its effects on relationships and social perceptions.
Advisors to Enterprising Families: Be sensitive to the fact that your wealthy clients have emotional vulnerabilities related to their wealth and want to be seen as whole people who are more than the money they have made or inherited. Seek training to be able to have comfortable conversations with clients about the complexities of wealth and identity. You will set yourself apart.