Young heirs grapple with wealth of ambivalence
Friday, November 20, 2009
One night in Adams Morgan, the sons and daughters of lawyers and corporate executives padded into a friend's rowhouse for a kind of group therapy session about their families' wealth.
They are young people who have inherited or stand to inherit big money, and they are spending their post-college years living modestly and working to address the needs of the poor, hungry and politically disadvantaged. But the privilege they grew up with and the money coming their way nag at them in ways few people not in their position can fathom.
Burke Stansbury, 33, a nonprofit administrator who inherited $1 million in stock three years ago, opened up about how his newborn's breathing problems were forcing him to reconsider how much of his fortune he should use for his family and how much to give away.
"Those of us with wealth and progressive values resist the privilege and actually deny it because of this inequality that exists in society," said Stansbury, who has spent his time since college working for a nonprofit organization devoted to labor issues in Latin America.
"We're not going to accept that form of privilege," he said. "But when it comes to [my son's] health care, we're not going to mess around. You're going to take advantage of [the money]. It's a real blessing, but it's not fair."
The dinner in Adams Morgan was held at the home of a private school teacher who inherited $1.5 million. It was a rare chance for members of the Resource Generation, a nonprofit group whose 35-and-younger members devote themselves to philanthropic work for social justice, to talk about their guilt and their views on social inequalities without fear of eye-rolling from people who might view them as spoiled rich kids playing at helping the downtrodden.
"Can I share something on my mind?" asked Liz Goldberg, 25, a nonprofit development associate whose father is a partner at the consulting firm KPMG. "I have epilepsy, and I require certain things over the year. Most recently, it was an MRI, and I can't afford it on my own, so I am forced to rely on my parents. I think of myself as independent, but I am not able to reconcile that payment."
Janelle Treibitz, 28, a part-time waitress who performs with the Puppet Underground performance group, which raises money for grass-roots organizations, could relate.
"In Vermont [this year], I broke my finger and didn't have insurance," said Treibitz, whose father is chief executive of a Colorado company that designs visual presentations for court trials. "I got my X-ray and gave [the hospital] a fake name and walked out. Is that okay that I am doing that -- taking up resources because I am refusing to take money from my parents?"
Inspired and challenged
The young wealthy are keenly aware that there is little public sympathy for the moral doubts they struggle with. In a harsh economy, few people worry about the insecurities of heirs in their 20s and 30s who choose to work in social change philanthropy.
But these young people represent a huge amount of money, and some feel not only inspired but also challenged by the choices they face.
Since the late 1990s, after a Boston College study concluded that $41 trillion would be passed from one generation to the next over the first five decades of the 21st century, several banking and nonprofit organizations have initiated programs catering to the emotional and financial literacy needs of young heirs. (The tally of wealth that will be inherited has since risen to about $50 trillion, according to the college.)