What would you do if your inherited wealth was built on slavery, fossil fuels or came at the price of neglect? Meet the guilty rich who want nothing to do with their money
Curtis did not make bad investments, or lose the family money in Las Vegas. She has chosen to give up 100% of her inheritance and 50% of the income she earns as a coach, “redistributing” it to grassroots social movements, Black liberation organizations, indigenous land projects and climate justice groups. She has even created a publicly accessible, color-coded spreadsheet listing her annual donations.
This is because Curtis’s banker ancestor didn’t start with nothing – and Curtis is keenly aware that the American Dream for some means an American nightmare for others. Her great, great, great, great (that’s an extra great) grandfather owned a cotton mill in New York that she says “can’t be disconnected from plantation labor”, while her grandmother’s grandfather had an 11,000-acre sugar plantation in Cuba. “My ancestors made harmful and immoral choices, participating in slavery and colonization,” she says, “And so I see this money as not mine; as belonging to those communities who had their land and labor stolen from them.”
We are at the beginning of a phenomenon nicknamed the Great Wealth Transfer. According to financial services group Sanlam, in the next decade, millennials will inherit £327bn from their parents. The trouble is, not everyone wants this money. A small but seemingly growing subset of young people feel guilt and shame about their inheritances – in response, some seek therapy, some seek drugs and others seek social change. Last year, one man made the mistake of seeking Twitter.
“A few days ago I took a medium dose of acid,” began a Twitter thread that was “ratioed” last June. (This means vastly more people replied to it than liked or retweeted it – an almost sure sign you’ve said something controversial.) Across 36 tweets, the man revealed he “resented” his mother for giving him $100,000. The world told him, “You do labor and are paid a fair wage for your labor and that’s how you earn the right to exist and be a member of society” – the acid made him realize he felt “guilty” because he had “never” done this.
Thousands of replies were unanimous: first, people told the man to read the room; second, they said some variation of, “If you hate your money, give it to me.” But the thread was a rare insight into the minds of the guilty rich.
“What we see with some very, very wealthy families is quite a lot of neglect,” says Robert Batt, founder of the Recovery Centre, a London-based mental health clinic for wealthy clients. “Now, that’s not neglect in the sense of a child going unfed,” Batt continues, explaining that one teen began self-harming after a difficult day at school. “She goes back to the big house in Belgravia and no one’s home. There’s probably a housekeeper somewhere, but no family… It feels odd to call that neglect, but I guess emotionally it really is.” Since the 1990s, child development expert Suniya S Luthar has repeatedly found that substance abuse, anxiety and depression are elevated in children on both ends of the socioeconomic spectrum.
At the age of five, Batt himself became lord of 18 Norfolk villages when his father died – by 15, he was a “menace” who “didn’t really do anything with my life apart from spend money and cause chaos” (he became addicted to cocaine, alcohol and shopping). “All the responsibility, all that wealth, all that history, led me into decline, despair and misery,” he says. He is troubled when families focus on “protecting the wealth, not the child”.
So, is it any wonder some children become antipathetic to money? “I’ve just come off a session with the granddaughter of one of the richest people in the world,” Batt says, “and she’s just not interested in the money. She said, ‘It doesn’t define me, it’s never defined me.’ And I love that, I think it’s great – but it’s quite rare.”
Yet the guilty rich are growing in number – or at least, more are speaking out. MacKenzie Scott, ex-wife of the world’s second richest man, Jeff Bezos, has given $12bn to non-profits in the past two years. “Like many, I watched the first half of 2020 with a mixture of heartbreak and horror,” Scott wrote in a July blog post that year, adding that she hoped, “people troubled by recent events [would] make new connections between privileges they’ve enjoyed and benefits they’ve taken for granted.” Abigail Disney – whose family needs no introduction – has said she opted out of being a billionaire, and would pass a global law banning private jets if she could.
Resource Generation is a community of the richest 18- to 35-year-olds in America who are “committed to the equitable distribution of wealth, land, and power.” Founded in the 90s, the organization has seen rapid recent growth, ending 2021 with 65% more members than 2019. Last year, more than 800 members pledged to give $100m to social justice movements. The organization’s UK counterpart, Resource Justice, was established in 2018; one of its founders, Leonie Taylor, is a 31-year-old Londoner whose father made his millions in oil.
“There is genuine guilt that comes from really benefiting from a really unjust system,” Taylor says. “I don’t see that money as mine, I see it as belonging to the planet.” Resource Justice runs a six-month program, Praxis, where the wealthy learn about inequality and share their personal stories. “It helps bring people to a place where they can step into action rather than hiding their position and feeling guilt and shame,” Taylor says.
Of course, not everyone clamors to sign up. Taylor has experienced pushback from people with “more right-wing approaches”. Curtis, the millennial donating 100% of her inheritance, earns a living coaching people with inherited wealth, helping them research their ancestors and make redistribution plans. She has two brothers – one is also forgoing his inheritance.
Curtis first became aware of her privilege aged eight, when her family purchased a second home on the Isle of Wight. “I had the sense that we were different,” Curtis says – in her teens, a close friend got a job to help her mother with the rent. “And it was like, ‘Oh, wow’, I never even had to think about supporting my family.”
Around the same time, Curtis became climate conscious – she read about the Canadian tar sands (oilfields larger than England) in a magazine and approached her father, horrified. He said: “Oh yes, those are very profitable. Your grandfather actually invested in them.”
Later, while studying environmental engineering at Dartmouth College, Curtis campaigned for the institution to divest its shares in Chevron and Exxon – then came the shock of her life. She sold her car and her father said she could keep the money if she invested in stocks. Hoping to aid solar panel companies, she went to open an investment account – then, she found out she already had one. There was $350,000 in her name, invested in “the very same corporations I was campaigning against”.
“I felt guilt, shame, anger… and a fiery longing to change it,” Curtis says. The money accumulated to $600,000 before she obtained full access in 2020 – so far, she has redistributed two-thirds. She has written a poem entitled On Shame. “Maybe you, like me, have an ancestor / you’ve been too ashamed to even speak of,” it begins. Later: “What we are most ashamed of / is not what they did / but what we are yet to do.”
For Curtis and Taylor, guilt was a useful emotion that provoked action. But it doesn’t always work this way. Stephen is a millennial who inherited $750,000 from a grandfather who worked in the pharmaceutical industry and property; the money has accumulated to $2m since his grandfather died a decade ago.
“The main feeling of guilt is seeing other people really struggling and having to work full-time jobs,” Stephen – whose name has been changed – says. The inheritance meant he struggled to hold down a job and feel a sense of purpose, until he found work teaching English abroad.
Yet Stephen says guilt “doesn’t necessarily put me into action, like, ‘OK, I’ll donate a bunch of money’” – instead, it “gives me some motivation to work some more hours, because other people are also working.” He says seeing a therapist has improved his self-esteem, which in turn has changed his perspective. “It’s helped lower the feelings of guilt,” he says. “She’s really helped me feel as if I can choose the life I want and I don’t have to necessarily listen to the social pressure of using this money to further the good of everybody. I can really use it to help me achieve the things that I want to achieve.” (Stephen would like to do charity work in the future, saying: “First you have to learn to help yourself before you can help others.”)
Rachel Sherman is a sociologist and author of Uneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence – she is currently working on a book about wealthy people working to change the system that advantages them. “There’s skepticism that this is just about being woke; it’s another form of status to say you’re sad about your money,” Sherman says. However, she adds: “Silence around class is one of the things that makes it possible for us to have so much inequality.” Sherman believes “these feelings are politically crucial” and change is possible when the wealthy talk openly.
Curtis now lives in an “intentional community”: a self-described “inter-generational, interracial, interfaith” collective who farm and lead activism workshops. “I love my life. I find it rich with meaning and purpose,” she says. “I don’t buy much stuff. I don’t go on fancy vacations, but I don’t find myself wanting or needing for more.” I suggest this is because she’s already had all this stuff.
“Absolutely,” she says, “I think myself and others coming from wealthy families, we see that being able to go to a five-star hotel doesn’t mean you necessarily have a happy family holiday. Our meaning in life, and our sense of happiness, comes more from our relationships and their quality, than from the quality of the furniture around us.”