I was chatting to a man who works in security for rich individuals. He was discussing wealth and anxiety, and said with a smile: “Of course, most wealthy people may not really need all this security. But if it means they worry less and are less anxious, it is worthwhile.”
In his line of work, he sees the rich worrying about events such as kidnapping, home invasion and the theft of their vintage Ferrari. But what do the rich worry about more generally and — to rephrase F Scott Fitzgerald — are their worries different to yours and mine?
Money is the obvious thing you would expect the rich not to worry about. But actually they do. A 2017 survey by Illinois-based financial research firm Spectrem Group found 20 per cent of investors worth between $5m and $25m are concerned about having enough cash to last their retirement.
You see similar sentiments everywhere. In her 2017 book Uneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence, Rachel Sherman has no trouble finding people on 10 times the average salary who have money worries that sound decidedly ordinary. She notes that we tend to orientate ourselves with our peers — if you hang out with rich people, you tend to assume your world is the norm and place yourself in the middle.
It is not that hard to see how this can happen. Those earning £300,000 a year with three children in boarding school and a £1m mortgage might plead they don’t have much left from their post-tax salary. Similarly you hear stories of people who think flying commercial, rather than private, is a way of staying grounded, as it were.
This thinking can be taken to absurdly high levels. Truly rich people can and do give themselves genuine money worries by trying to keep up with even richer people. In Tom Bower’s biography of Conrad Black, the disgraced former press baron, an unnamed source offers the deliciously waspish quote: “I don’t understand why Conrad wants to be the poorest billionaire in America.”
Even so, as we head up into the hundreds of millions, most people are surely above money worries. Perhaps, but then they just worry about losing their money. Or how they can pass on enough money to their grandchildren. Or they worry about geopolitical instability, corruption and crime, although it is arguable that these may be just a more high-minded way of worrying about losing money.
Such lofty concerns are not the preserve of the rich. Every year, Chapman University in California publishes a fun list called the Survey of American Fears. In 2018, the biggest fear, for all Americans, was corrupt government officials. Money was at number four, but five of the top 10 fears were environmental. This is perhaps surprising, as politicians, especially in the US, often portray the environment as an elite concern. (By way of context, being murdered by a stranger was at number 50, one above sharks.)
“We are beginning to see trends that people tend to fear what they are exposed to in the media,” says Christopher Bader, the survey leader and a professor of sociology at Chapman. Media scare stories are, to an extent, fairly egalitarian and widely consumed. Plutocrats differ from the hoi polloi in that they have the means to do something about these newsworthy worries — which might explain the vogue among the Silicon Valley elite for post-apocalyptic boltholes in faraway places such as New Zealand.
One school of thought believes the human capacity for anxiety (in the modern sense) developed with agriculture. The anthropologist James Woodburn describes two types of early society: “immediate return” and “delayed return”. Hunting is mostly the former, while farming societies are the latter, as they involve work now with an expectation of future benefits. Modern technological societies are largely delayed return.
The writer James Clear suggests it is having a brain that initially evolved for immediate return in a world that is now entirely delayed return that makes us worry so much. We are, the thinking goes, hardwired to go and pick fruit when we are hungry, not spend six months growing fruit and worrying about droughts and locusts. We are not designed for what Sherman describes as “large consumption projects” such as architect-designed extensions.
Finally, we need to return to orientation and the reinforcing nature of the wealth bubble. As my contact in security says: “You have six wealthy people and one is talking about being kidnapped. Suddenly it is a ‘legitimate’ worry for all of them, even though the chances are very low.”
What happens next is that they hire protection, whereas a less wealthy person would rationalise the concern away or forget about it. This, perhaps, is how the worries of the rich really are different to yours and mine.
Rhymer is re-reading . . .
The Cartel by Don Winslow, which is an incredible, sprawling epic about what drug trafficking has done to Mexico — and has been described by crime novelist James Ellroy as “the War and Peace of dopewar books”. This is the second novel in a trilogy. The third, The Border, has just been published and I cannot wait to read it.