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Uneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence

An excerpt from Rachel Sherman's new book

Scott and Olivia, both 39, live with their three children in a large prewar apartment in Manhattan. They spend weekends and vacations at their second home in the Connecticut countryside. Their children attend a prestigious private school. They employ a part-time personal assistant as well as a nanny-housekeeper and occasionally a personal chef. On airplanes they usually travel in business class, though when the children were small the family often flew on private planes. Fueling this lifestyle is Scott’s inherited wealth, generated by a business his grandfather founded. After earning Ivy League BA and MBA degrees, Scott worked in finance for several years before deciding that the benefits of this employment did not compensate for the time he had to spend on it. He now focuses on a small technology business he started that supports nonprofits, as well as playing an active role on the board of his children’s school. Olivia is also Ivy League educated, although she comes from a working-class family. She has an MA in social work but works for pay only occasionally, spending most of her time taking care of the children and maintaining the household.

Scott told me he had been self-conscious about his wealth since he was a child. He recalled feeling sensitive to comments classmates and others would make about the size of his family’s house. He said, “I just felt like, ‘Yeah, this is kind of different. And, it’s something to hide.’” In college he became a leftist and obscured his background as much as possible, but classmates ultimately found out that he was a “secret rich guy” and taunted him about the family’s company, which was associated with abuses of workers’ rights. When I talked with Olivia, she described feeling uncomfortable having married into wealth. Although she felt that it was easy to spend money helping other people or creating a home for her children, she had trouble spending only on herself, particularly because it was money she hadn’t earned. Quite liberal politically, she and Scott were both especially aware of those who had less. They also worried about their children and how to instill in them the desire to work.

Scott and Olivia’s internal conflicts about their wealth cropped up especially in their feelings about their living space. When I interviewed Scott in 2009, he was overseeing renovation of an Upper West Side apartment worth $4.5 million, which they had bought primarily because they believed that each of their children should have his or her own room. But they felt conflicted about living there. When I asked why, Scott said, “Do we want to live in such a fancy place? Do we want to deal with the person coming in and being like, ‘Wow!’ You know, like, that wears on you… We’re just not the type of people who wear it on our sleeve. We don’t want that ‘Wow.’”

When I talked with Olivia a few years later, the family was living in their new home. But the transition had not been easy for her. In fact, she had initially been so uncomfortable with the apartment that they had considered not moving into it. The previous owner had done a significant renovation, which she found unbearably ostentatious. The apartment was “dripping marble” and had other aesthetic features Olivia hated. She said, “I mean, we’re doing our best, with our clutter and junk, to, like, take the majesty and grandeur out of it. But, when I come [home], I feel like, ‘This isn’t me.’ You know. This doesn’t reflect who I feel like I am in the world, and who I want to be in the world.”

In the renovation Olivia had planned to change the aesthetic elements that bothered her. But expensive unexpected structural problems ate up the money they had allocated, and Scott had balked at shelling out another million or so. Olivia told me, “We could have spent it. He just didn’t — psychologically, he didn’t want to. And I didn’t either. But I also really didn’t want to live with it the way it was.” The conflict that ensued was, as Olivia described it, “traumatizing,” destabilizing their marriage, and it resulted in their not doing anything to their new home for over two years. Olivia said that the renovation conflict “was a fight about a lot of things. But at root, I think it was about money. And what is okay to spend or not spend.”

Their struggle was also partly about the visibility of their wealth, as their discomfort with the aesthetics of the apartment shows. As Scott noted, standing out had been a sore spot for him since his childhood. Olivia elaborated on this issue in talking about the opulence of her home vis-à-vis those of their peers and friends, whom she described as “normal.” She said, “I always feel a certain level of awkwardness about having people over. Especially people — I mean, we don’t hang out in society circles. In society circles, I don’t think our apartment would be that exciting. We hang out with more normal people. And so, even having kids’ friends over, there’s always this, like, inner hurdle that I have to get over.” She was still so uneasy with the fact that they lived in a penthouse that she had asked the post office to change their mailing address so it would include the floor number instead of PH, a term she found “elite and snobby.”(1) Not surprisingly, neither invited me to their home; I talked with Scott in his office and with Olivia in mine.

But their discomfort was not just about how their consumption choices would look to others. It was also about how to set a limit on spending when there was, essentially, no objective ceiling, and what that limit meant about what kind of people they were. Scott said it had taken them nearly two years to buy an air conditioner when they first moved to New York. He said that kind of decision “typifies us.” He continued, “We have to feel like we’re doing it the hard way. I mean, the way we shop, the way we do our sort of like [family] stuff. And, you know, the way life works is, we do normal-Joe everyday stuff. We ride the trains. You know, for some reason it’s important to us to feel that way.” Olivia described creating these discomforts as “the mental trick I have to play, in a way, to be okay with having so much. And coming from so little.”

Yet Scott and Olivia seemed to be growing more comfortable with their lifestyle over time. Olivia told me their annual spending had reached $800,000, up from $600,000 a few years before. She had a new attitude about the apartment, saying, “If we’re going to live there, like, let’s really live there. Let’s really kind of embrace it, and not try to pretend like we don’t live there, in a funny sort of way, by not getting the door fixed. You know, we had a broken closet door for the whole time we lived in our old apartment. So there’s some, like, little mental game, again, about keeping it just a little bit uncomfortable. You know, we’re here, but we’re not really here, kind of thing. So that’s finally starting to wear off. I’m kind of getting really tired of doing that.” She was even planning to embark on another renovation.

***

Scott and Olivia are two of the fifty affluent and wealthy New York parents I interviewed for this book, who ranged from Wall Street financiers and corporate lawyers to professors and artists with inherited wealth. In talking with these people, I initially wanted to know how privileged New Yorkers made choices about consumption and lifestyle — that is, how people who had economic freedom decided what was worth spending money on. How did they make decisions about buying and renovating a home, placing children in school, hiring domestic workers, and using their leisure time? What counted as “real” needs versus “luxuries”? These questions mattered because they were related to a broader issue: how people who were benefitting from rising economic inequality experienced their own social advantages. Did they think of themselves as having more than others? If so, did this self-conception affect the life choices they made? What might these decisions and discourses have to do with their personal histories; their networks of friends, family, and colleagues; or their political views?

What stood out from the beginning of these conversations was how much my interviewees, like Scott and Olivia, had struggled over these decisions. I first noticed conflicts about how much money it was acceptable to spend, and on what. Was it okay to spend a thousand dollars on a dress? Two thousand on a purse? Half a million on a home renovation? Sometimes these were questions about how much they could afford, given their resources. But more often they were about what kind of people they would be if they made these choices. When a stay-at-home mother paid for a lot of babysitting, for example, was she “a snob”? If she sent back a light fixture she thought was too big for the kitchen, was she a “princess”? Did a couple with tens of millions in assets have to live with a sofa they hated because it felt “wasteful” to change it? These questions were loaded with moral judgment and language; my interviewees criticized excess and self indulgence while praising prudence and reasonable consumption.

I therefore shifted the focus of the interviews to explore these issues more fully and started hearing about other kinds of dilemmas related to money and identity. How could these affluent parents give their children high-quality (usually private) education and other advantages without spoiling them? How should they resolve disagreements about spending priorities with their partners? How could those who did not earn money be recognized for contributing to their households? How should they talk with others, including me, about these decisions? Interior designers, financial planners, and other service providers I interviewed confirmed that their clients often had trouble talking about money and were conflicted about spending it. Ultimately, I realized that these were conflicts about how to be both wealthy and morally worthy, especially at a historical moment of extreme and increasingly salient economic inequality. This book is about how these affluent New York parents grapple with this question.

You can read the rest of the introduction to Professor Sherman’s new book “Uneasy Street” here.

Footnotes

(1.) John, a young progressive person with wealth, told me a similar story, of a friend who was buying a penthouse apartment but insisted as a condition of the sale that the PH be removed from the elevator and replaced by the floor number.

Rachel Sherman

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