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Rich Kid Syndrome

“This is the single most important issue our members deal with: not screwing up your kid,” says Tommy Gallagher, CEO of Tiger 21, a peer-to-peer investment group on the Upper East Side whose barrier to entry is investable assets of at least $10 million.

To most conscientious rich people, all you have to say are two words to put the fear of God in them: Paris Hilton. Advisers to the rich structure entire symposia for their clients around the idea of avoiding her fate. (She comes up as often in Q&As as private jets.) Yet most philosophers of wealth will tell you that the pathologies and complications associated with money aren’t confined to those who stand to inherit lots. “We are not just talking about the children of multimillionaires and billionaires who have to worry about the effects of money,” says Suniya Luthar, a psychologist at Columbia Teachers College. “Think of any white-collar professionals who want their children to lead the same lifestyles and have the same opportunities that they have themselves. The critical question is how to strive for those things while also striving for their equanimity as human beings. And that’s often harder than it seems.”

Looking back on that year after graduation—the one in which he had his crisis of wealth—Roth can offer a very simple diagnosis to explain his malaise: “I was not working,” he says. “If I’d decided to be a philosophy professor”—his major in college, “and I was succeeding at it, I think I’d have been fine. But I wasn’t. I hadn’t figured it out. And that was unacceptable to me.”

Roth, at least, was lucky. He grew up fully comprehending the psychological place of work, recognizing it as something whose value extended far beyond the ability to pay bills. He simply had to figure out what his vocation was. But the same thing can in no way be said of all children who grow up wealthy—or, as psychologist Luthar discovered, even the merely affluent. And without the structuring contours of a profession—without the mundane and daily obligations that come with showing up at your job, doing it well, and getting paid—what remains is often an existential question: What on earth am I meant to be doing with myself all day?

“Malaise is a soft word for it,” says Luthar. “Anomie, alienation, anguish—this is what happens when we’re robbed of that sense of efficacy.”

Luthar has made an academic subspecialty out of studying the interior lives of privileged kids. It was a more difficult career choice than one might think. She says her proposal to do a wide-ranging, ten-year study on the effects of affluence on adolescents was the only one in her career she was asked to redo—twice. Yet what she found is pretty intriguing. In a sample of 314 tenth-graders in a wealthy suburban community, the rate of “clinically significant anxiety” was 5 to 9 percent higher than the national average, and among girls, the rate of “clinically significant depression” was three times the national norm. Drug use exceeded not just national averages but that of low-income high-school kids she followed in a parallel study. In part, she says, it’s because so many children of the wealthy are overworked, trying to live up to their parents’ high standards, or at least to take full advantage of the extraordinary possibilities laid out before them. But in part, she adds, it’s because some wealthy children are underworked, not held to responsibilities and obligations, and therefore suffering from a certain crisis of utility, of agency—they’ve never had to do anything for themselves. “These young people obsess, ‘What can I do if I were left to my own resources entirely?’” says Luthar. “‘How much of my success is really attributable to all the forms of help I get, and how much is really me?’”

Such relentless self-focus has other collateral consequences. Luthar’s research shows that if you compare the extracurricular activities of affluent children with those of children who live in stark poverty, the poor children are far more civic-minded, donating more of their time to churches, the Scouting movement, and social programs. These kinds of altruistic engagements are far more apt to give them a sense of the world’s largeness and entry into social networks that extend beyond their household staff. She adds that other research on rich adults shows they’re far more likely to feel friendless than poor ones. “Think about it,” says Luthar. “How does any of us know we’re loved by friends? It’s when they come to us in a time of need. If we don’t have a time of need because we buy what we need, how are we going to know who truly loves us?”