Endangered Old Money: Perils Of The Slightly Rich

by , Jul 22, 2009, 3:37 PM
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Larry Samuel/RICH While the rich have weathered the highs and lows of the economy for centuries, it looks like the current downturn may have Old Money on the ropes.

True, it's basically been a downhill slide for the bluebloods since 1920 or so -- when just about any chap could make a million or two in the stock market, elbowing the Rockefellers and Vanderbilts out of the way.

But we asked Larry Samuel, author of Rich: The Rise and Fall of American Wealth Culture (Amacom) and founder of Culture Planning, a marketing firm, to weigh in what's happened to the old families, and the upstarts that are replacing them in America's status hierarchy.

Q: How has the idea of what it means to be rich changed?

A: Rich just means having money. The old badges of elitism -- the prep schools and private clubs, for example -- that were once open to only the right rich people are now open to anyone with money. Over the generations, this democratized idea of self-made wealth has taken over, whether that was the oil money of the '40s and '50s, the Reagan-era glitz of the '80s, the tech money in the '90s, or more recently, the hedge-fund guys.

While I see Old Money doing more things like having new oil portraits painted -- not just of themselves but also of their ancestors -- to emphasize what sets them apart, it's a subculture that is fading away. Being rich once meant you had taste, or were well-educated. Now it's purely defined by having money.

Q: You argue that Americans basically like wealthy people. Could you explain?

A: Well, that comes and goes, to a degree. And up until 1920 or so, Americans saw wealthy people as villains -- robber barons. But then with the democratization of the stock market in the 1920s, anybody could get rich, and all of a sudden, $1 million wasn't so much. People with new money were likable, and did fun things -- like buy each other motor cars and baby grand pianos. During the Depression, that shifted again. But with the rise of oil money, of the new professional and managerial classes, the idea of self-made wealth is very appealing to us.

Q: But aren't we turned off by excess?

A: Absolutely. Watching people spend money on all that luxe stuff is shallow and meaningless. It doesn't even convey status anymore. Instead, other forms of status have evolved.

Q: Such as?

A: We've seen a rise in other archetypes. Like the thrillionaire, the Richard Branson types that subscribe to the idea that money exists primarily to spend on experiences. There are what I call coolionaires, who view aesthetics as the essence of life, and use their money to express sophistication.

There is a group I call realionaires, who are naturally inclined to stay under the radar -- they'll spend money when it matters to them, but not when it doesn't. There's a group called wellionaires, who spend all their money to look good, feel healthy, and think positively. They want people to see that their wealth allows them to live a balanced life.

And there's a final archetype I call the willionaires -- like old money or royalty, they believe that wealth conveys a responsibility to try to make the world a better place.

Q: How do you think Old Money feels about being excluded from all this?

A: Well, it's a diaspora. They saw themselves as the elite, and coming from money meant that you were well-read, for example. So when they see themselves being evicted from their Classic Six apartments on the Upper East Side, forced over to the West Side by the super wealthy, who tear down walls and make even bigger apartments, they see it as a blow to themselves and society at large.

I think it raises pretty big issues -- is eliteness a good thing? In America, we're constantly knocking it down, and praising democracy and meritocracy. And while I'm not crying in my beer over their fate or anything, I have to admit I think it's sad when any subculture vanishes -- it diminishes American culture as a whole.

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