Rethinking advice for parents
A recent article in The New York Times by Ron Lieber with the headline “Growing Up on Easy Street Has Its Own Dangers” revealed the shocking news that many adult children of the moneyed class are not self-sufficient functioning adults. The article states:
There is an emerging consensus among academics that children of the affluent have higher rates of depression and anxiety and elevated levels of substance abuse and certain delinquent behaviors.
OMG! If this is news to you, what planet are you living on?
Ever since the ’60s, members of wealthy families have been self-reporting high rates of addiction, behavioral health disorders, abuse, and generalized dysfunctions in memoirs. Aside from personal stories, Joanie Bronfman’s 1987 dissertation, The Experience of Inherited Wealth: A Social-Psychological Perspective, documents what is common knowledge among the next-generation affluent: Yes, Houston, we have a problem!
But almost every wealthy family, when asked, will not admit to significant concerns about substance use disorders or underperforming, economically-dependent younger generations. Those of use on the inside – either because we are in recovery or in the helping professions – see a reality that is far different than the public façade. Not only are there high levels of substance dependence, but increasingly, financial conflict with parents and trustees stemming from the inability to independently sustain the lifestyle and social standing experienced as children.
As commented on in the New York Social Diary (your link to society), over the last 20 years there is the growing phenomenon of new wealth supplying their children with an endless supply of money to live the high life and impress their friends. While this assures those of us in the recovery business an endless supply of clients, old money’s younger generations feel enormous social pressure to compete and maintain prominence.
This group, having grown up in an environment of surplus, expects to live in a similar manner as adults and be supported by family money in doing so. Their parents often inherited in their 40s or even earlier. But now, with increasing longevity, the next generations are facing shortfalls and not happy about it. Lacking the skills or inclination to earn significant incomes in the job market, they are pressuring parents and trustees to pony up. While resorting to violence is obviously an extreme measure, cutting off access to grandchildren and threatening litigation with the attendant disclosure of family secrets is becoming more common.
Few take responsibility for slacking off in high school and college and consequently failing to develop marketable skills or spend within their means. Accepting a lower social profile or adopting a reduced standard of living is not an option. Resentments surface and demands increase, often fueled by excessive alcohol and prescription medication abuse.
Reaching a crisis level
We continue to identify substance abuse and behavioral disorders as the No. 1 risk to wealth preservation and next-generation well-being. While drinking and drugging have always been part of high-end culture, intensifying external social and media influences are leading to increased use and at younger ages. It’s beginning to reach a crisis level; parents are overwhelmed and outgunned, and we are not using our expertise to help them respond.
In my view, the primary task for family offices, advisors, and professionals is to support parents in setting limits, requiring accountability, and limiting communication tools, as well as being role models rather than peers. Advice on involving the younger group in philanthropy, family meetings, and business/economic exercises is secondary and can detract from the more important goals of learning life skills, developing academic and career interests, and differentiating from “the family.”
Let’s devote 2015 to assisting our clients in educating themselves on the risks to their children and responses that allow them to successfully navigate an increasingly hazardous culture.