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Wealth Guilt 2.0

By Family GovernanceMay, 2023March 18th, 20243 min read

In society, the wealthy often get a bad rap.

If you’re a wealth creator, people may view the wealth you have created as coming at the expense of someone else. They may rally against “inequality” – that some people have (a lot) more than others. The fact is that the gap between wealthy and poor is increasing – each one is a reinforcing loop so the rich tend to get richer and the poor get poorer. That can lead to feelings of guilt about the wealth you have created. If you are a wealth inheritor, these feelings are compounded because you “won the genetic lottery” and have received an unfair leg up in life.

A further level of guilt can arise when considering how your family’s wealth was acquired. If the family money came from fossil fuels or tobacco, the rising generation may feel a need to divest and shift into other investments because those assets might now be considered “toxic”. They may further be driven to direct philanthropic efforts to combat climate change, and feel a need to “atone” for the negative impact on the environment made by their ancestors.

It can even go further. Some families are now delving into their past to determine if their families benefited from slavery, and if so they wish to make amends philanthropically.

There is an important distinction to make here. If wealth was created using means that were legal or acceptable by the standards of society at the time, it is not fair to judge our ancestors by today’s ethical standards. On the other hand, if the wealth was created through activities that were illegal or criminal at the time, they could well be considered “ill gotten gains”.

Consider This: What do you know of your family wealth “origin story”? How is this told within your family? What “secrets” are kept regarding this? Is there a diversity of views on this from different generations and if so, how are they reconciled?

Further reading:

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