After thinking about this statement—why heirs need to work—for a few weeks, I have come to believe that it is the most complex, and possibly the most important, issue facing heirs. The subject of heirs and work needs to be approached from several perspectives—far too many for one small blog post. Therefore my intention is to devote the next few weeks to exploring some variables of this most important issue—I think it is the most important issue for inheritors.
I’ll begin with two contrasting examples—one of a man who never needed to work because his family was wealthy, but he had a passion for his work. Henri Cartier-Bresson is one of the greatest photographers of the twentieth century. Because he didn’t need to support himself he was free to devote himself to photography in his early twenties and for the rest of his life.
The second example is a story found in Labors of Love: The Legacy of Inherited Wealth, Book 2: a woman inherited suddenly at a very early age after her father her father died following a heart attack. Taking hold of her life and finding her sense of purpose became an enormous challenge for her—one that she was unable to master for many years. “When you don’t need to work for survival, purpose is all there is. And when you’re twenty-one and you don’t have the necessity to get out there, it’s an enormous thing to struggle with at a young age. What do I need to do? I don’t need to do anything! I feel like the money I inherited is a muting force—like right after a snowstorm, when everything is white and quiet and sort of neutralized. I feel like I’ve been subdued. Nothing stands out more than anything else.” (Inheritors and Work: The Search for Purpose)
Of all the stories my co-authors and I collected (well over one hundred), this one is the saddest: “People have told me, ‘You have everything!’ You should be able to do anything! Follow your dream. But I am just rooted to the spot; I don’t even have a dream to follow. There is a kind of frozenness that extends so completely throughout my life that when people ask me, ‘What have you been doing recently?’ I think, ‘Oh my God, I don’t know! Don’t ask. I haven’t been doing anything—nothing. I don’t do anything.’” (The Legacy of Inherited Wealth: Interviews with Heirs)
When it comes to work, some of the many variables that shape inheritors’ lives are these: gender—parental expectations for girls are often different than for boys; the source of the wealth—“old money” or “new money”; how well parents prepare their children—or fail to prepare them—for working; the age at which heirs come into their money; if the source of the wealth is a family business, whether there is an expectation that the sons, and possibly—though less likely—the daughters, will take up a role in the business. Most important of all is what kind of role models parents set for their children.
End of Part One