Meet the Neighbors
The New Rich List
Back in the early 1990s, I was—for a short while—a reporter/ researcher for Forbes magazine. During my tenure there, I got a few plum assignments, including spending one weekend fact-checking the first interview Michael Milken had granted from prison and fact-checking another on the businessman who would eventually become New York’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg. I suppose I did well enough because I was soon tapped to do a little legwork on Forbes’s lists of billionaires and richest celebrities.
The preeminent Forbes rich list, of course, is the Forbes 400: the list of the country’s four hundred wealthiest Americans. It has been around since 1982, when just three families made up 13 percent of the list. There were eleven members of the Hunt family, fourteen Rockefellers, and twenty-eight du Ponts. In 2007, on the list’s twenty-fifth anniversary, these dynastic numbers had dwindled to almost nothing. There was one Rockefeller (David Rockefeller, Sr.), one Hunt (Ray Hunt), and no du Ponts. Fifty people fell off the list completely. Forty-five were newcomers—nearly half of whom had made their money in hedge funds and private equity (like Pete Peterson of Blackstone and David Rubenstein of the Carlyle Group); the others were a mixed bag, including Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, a pay-per-view fight fest.
The point, notes Columbia University researcher Wojciech Kopczuk, is not just that wealth is less concentrated (the share of wealth in the hands of the top 1 percent of Americans has fallen by half over the last eighty years). The real point is that it has moved into a whole new set of hands. Over the past twenty-five years, as these families have lost their historical positions, a whole new set of people has gotten rich. Some are entrepreneurs that have made a splash. Others are high earners on Wall Street, in corporate America, at law firms or consulting companies. Still others bought the right stocks (or were handed the right stock options) at particularly opportune times.
This is an incredibly optimistic sign—and it’s not just coming from the pages of Forbes. According to the Harrison Group, a research firm in Connecticut, three-quarters of the wealthy families in this country—and nearly all of those who qualify as upper middle class—didn’t start out wealthy. Eighty-three percent came from the middle class. They’ve accumulated wealth over fifteen years on average, which means that some of them got there in significantly less time than that. And here’s a bonus: When you look at the wealth of the pentamillionaires (the folks with $5 million or more), only one-tenth of their money came from passive investments. They made the rest of it themselves. Survey after survey I pored over while researching this book shows that a shrinking percentage of today’s wealth came through a bequest. Research from the Spectrem Group, based in Chicago, found that only 2 to 4 percent of today’s millionaires became rich that most old-fashioned way. This means you no longer have to be born into wealth. Despite the hurdles presentd by the markets in 2008, the American dream is alive and thriving—and you have the ability to achieve it.
Where Are Women in This Mix?
The tide for women is turning a bit more slowly—but it is turning, nonetheless. Remember, there are two ways for people to become wealthy: They can inherit money or they can earn it. (Some people might argue that marriage is a third proven way to get wealthy. I don’t put it on the list because it can also take your financial life in the opposite direction. Nine percent of our survey respondents blamed divorce for a negative turn in their fortunes; 8 percent blamed marriage itself.)
Interestingly, the fact that the ranks of the wealthy are more dominated these days by earned wealth rather than inherited wealth works against women. How? Think about the wealthy American families of yesteryear, the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, Hearsts, and so on. They had children and their children had children and—on average—those children were likely to be 50 percent male and 50 percent female. So as the money passed from generation to generation, it created as many female millionaires as male ones.
When it comes to earning money, however, men still hold the advantage. Women are making strides. Some 30 to 40 percent of women outearn their spouses. More women than men are entering college and graduate-degree programs. Some researchers predict that the average woman will outearn the average man by the year 2030. But for now, women still lag. In 2007, the number of cents a woman earned for each dollar a man earned jumped from 77—where it had been stuck for as long as I can remember—to 81. Progress, yes, but still not an even playing field.
In terms of wealth and who has it, the number of women inheritors falling out of the ranks of the über-wealthy is—for now—greater than the number of women earners climbing into them. As Columbia’s Kopczuk puts it: “Old wealth is split equally. New wealth is not. But as time goes on, we expect to see a more equal split in wealth as well as in income. The tremendous strides women have made in income already indicates we will.”
How Do You Get There?
This all brings up the questions that are at the heart of this book: Where do you fit in now? And how do you rise to the top?
I suppose that’s fitting, as this entire book unfolded as the result of asking—and attempting to answer—one very large question: Why do some people seem to move relatively easily from a paycheck-to- paycheck existence into comfort or wealth, while others get stuck or—worse—fall back?
I set out to answer that question by reading volumes of research—academic and otherwise—on the subject. Or I should say subjects: wealth, education, success, entrepreneurship, risk taking, and the bigger worlds of behavioral finance and positive psychology, which danced in, out, and around the question I was trying to frame. Many professors walked me through their work, explaining their theories and answering my questions.
In the end, though, it wasn’t enough. I wanted specifics of which behaviors, attitudes, goals, and personality traits mattered most. I needed to know how these elements combined to make The Difference. How many of these behaviors, attitudes, goals, and traits did you need to boost you from one category to another? What, if anything, held you back?
That was when I joined forces with Merrill Lynch and Harris Interactive to develop our own survey instrument that would look—specifically—at these questions. For months, a team of eight to ten of us met regularly. We used the preexisting research as the foundation for our a twenty-minute questionnaire. Then we rewrote those questions, and rewrote them again. Finally, several months later, we administered the poll to more than five thousand individuals.
The study, formally known as the 2008 Merrill Lynch New Retirement Study, delved specifically into four loosely constructed categories: nonfinancial behaviors, financial attitudes and behaviors, goals (both financial and life), and personality. We asked hundreds of questions about topics including—but not limited to—the following:
financial attitudes and behaviors: Are you where you want to be financially? Why or why not? What has been the most important factor in reaching your financial status? Under what circumstances were you able to establish financial comfort? How do you handle your credit cards? Do you or do you not budget? Do you look up to people with more money than you have? Have you worked with a financial adviser? How do you feel about stocks? Bonds? Do you feel entitled to a good standard of living?
goals: What financial goals have been absolutely essential for you as an adult? Save more? Reduce debt? Which goals have you been able to accomplish as an adult? Can you envision a day where you won’t have to work to meet your financial needs? Do you envision a retirement where you will work part-time? Start your own business?
personality: Are you satisfied with your family life? Religious life? Sex life? Financial life? Are you driven to make a lot of money? Are you hardworking? A multitasker? Grateful? Confident? Happy? Optimistic? Stubborn? Creative? Street smart? Outgoing? Competitive? A leader? Ambitious? Popular? A risk taker? Do you have the ability to overcome a bad situation? Are you passionate about your work? Do you finish what you start? Can you easily read other people? Do you feel it is okay to break some rules? Have you compromised your personal principles to succeed professionally?
nonfinancial behaviors: How many times have you changed occupations as an adult? Do you work more than others? From home? On vacation? How often do you vote? How much television do you watch? How much time do you spend online? How often do you exercise? How often do you read books? Newspapers? Do you participate in extreme sports? Or meditate? How much sleep do you need? How often do you socialize and with whom—friends, family, neighbors, colleagues? People you enjoy? People who could advance your career? Have you made personal sacrifices to climb the ladder of success? Do you give back to your community? Often? As often as you can?
It was a huge undertaking. And that was not all. We asked about political affiliation, left and right handedness, birth order, and whether participants were the children of parents who read to them at night. If we had an inkling that something might be important, we tried to find some way to add it to the soup. And as you’d expect, some of the issues raised by these questions turned out to matter a lot, others not so much, some not at all.
We got the results back in early 2008. But anyone who h...