Young, Rich People In D.C. Feel Guilty About Youth, Riches

Anyone who's seen the masterpiece of documentary filmmaking Born Rich knows that with great wealth comes great tsuris: and especially in this economy! Oy, the guilt!

In a Washington Post piece titled "grappling with a wealth of guilt," we learn about the particular burdens of reluctant noblesse oblige, or at least the Adams-Morgan version thereof.

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.

Now, it's easy to be snide about this sort of thing - dismiss it as a sort of earnest, modern-day Petit Trianon - which the article is quick to address. The meeting the author describes was, he says,

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.

Later he adds, "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."

And yes, everyone in the piece does good work: they give to charity; one is a teacher; several work for non-profits. And they, too, have health and family problems. Nevertheless, parts of the article still read like parody, and the D.C. Young People with whom I spoke were not amused by what was perceived as a "seriously doubtful" "non-phenomenon" and unsuccessful attempt to be "edgy and contrarian." (Hey, Zagat is onto something!) Said one denizen sourly, "All I know is, when I used to work in a high-end hat boutique for a bit during college breaks, I can assure you that none of the moneyed youths to whom I sold $75 silk headbands appeared to have any serious qualms about the issue." (Different crowd, I guess.) Another queried, "in that picture why does the guy look like he's not standing on anything?" Perhaps the last word goes to the Logan Circle resident who wrote me, "yeah, there are rich people here, but if anything this feels like less of an issue in this economy...because so many of us are relatively lucky, just to be employed, fed, well, and dealing with a "survivor's guilt" that didn't exist a few years ago."

Because, here's the thing: there's a presumption here that the rest of the world is judging people...for being rich and living normally? For giving away money? For being conflicted? And, the thing is, we don't care. Most of us don't mind. Nice person who came into money and does good work? Great. We might envy the security, but I don't think we resent it. One guy in the piece says, "I definitely feel like I am at war between my desires instilled in me to eat out at nice restaurants and my better sense and principles," and I wanted to shout, "it doesn't help anyone if you don't go to a restaurant! Do it! If I had money, I would!" Like D.C., New York is full of rich people, many of them young. Some of them are, like these people, conscientious and civic-minded. Others, in Born Rich. Most of us are aware of this and aren't thinking about or resenting them nearly as much as they seem to imagine.

Here's what I do resent: when people pretend they can afford SoHo lofts on their artist incomes; when they're scrupulous about never paying a cent more than they owe at dinner because they think people are using them; when they complain about having to go on extravagant family vacations; and, most of all, when they talk about buying brownstones in "marginal neighborhoods." That's what we resent: not people having money, not their giving it to charity. I can even understand needing to vent about the guilt - although, don't you kind of get that off your chest? How often do you need to wallow in it? - and it's not their fault that someone wanted to profile them and left them open to cheap cracks from raging creative underclassers like me who, relative to much of the world, is still in a pretty well-fed percentile. It's all degrees of guilt and narcissism and analysis that, ironically, separates us further and further from any of the actual issues we're discussing.

The other evening, my grandfather, born very poor, reflected on feeling guilty "as a former Communist" for now living in such a swank area code. "I really feel like it's a sin," he said. "But at least there are like-minded people in the building." Then the doorman brought up some takeout.

Grappling With A Wealth Of Guilt
[Washington Post]