THE INHERITOR’S DILEMMA—WHAT TO DO WHEN YOU DON’T NEED TO EARN MONEY?

Ever since I can remember I have wanted—and needed—to work. That desire was entirely self-generated. As a child I did my homework without being prodded and got A’s. Then I went to graduate school and completed a PhD in just four years. Then I worked at being a parent. But for many years I had hardly any “real” jobs because I didn’t need money (I already had a trust fund), and—more to the point—I didn’t have the confidence, or the life skills, to go out into the world and promote myself.Finally I took hold of something, though without any salary: doing independent research on how the poor in Nova Scotia (my new home at that point) managed to survive on welfare. I was still “in the closet”: the people I knew didn’t know I was rich and had a trust fund because I lived so far below my means.

I wrote a couple of research papers that got a lot of publicity and were well regarded. Canada’s national newspaper, The Globe and Mail, wrote a front-page article about my work. Then there was another unsatisfying lack-of-work gap, and it was two more years before I co-authored The Legacy of Inherited Wealth: Interviews with Heirs, and The Inheritance Project was born.

Shortly after the book was published I saw a woman (a social worker) for whom I had great respect. She asked, “What are you doing now?” I told her about my new book—something vague (I was embarrassed) about the problems that heirs experienced. She looked at me and said, in a subtle but unmistakably disparaging tone, “Oh, that’s nice. It gives you something to do.”

I was crushed, and that feeling of being … I didn’t even know what to call it … maybe “less than adequate” or “just a dilettante” took a long time to fade away.

This post is the first of several that will appear in the next few months (with a month-long gap to get some relief from Nova Scotia’s frigid winter) on the subject of heirs and work. It is a complex and interesting issue, with many perspectives and connections to related challenges for heirs who want to work, or who do work, or who do not want to work.

One of the most dreaded questions asked of the heirs we interviewed is “What do you do?” Some inheritors have even resorted to lying—anything seemed better to them than being outed.