Skip to main content

Rachel Sherman is the author of Uneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence, based on interviews with 50 wealthy New Yorkers about their children, homes and money issues.The Globe and Mail

It's easy to imagine that money solves all problems. But wealthy people have their own worries.

Like the rest of us, they wonder if they are good people. They also wonder whether they should be ashamed at how they spend their money – even to the point of hiding the price tags on groceries and clothes from household staff and friends.

But one of their top concerns is: "Do I deserve this wealth?" That applies whether they earned or inherited their money.

So writes Rachel Sherman in her new book, Uneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence, based on interviews with 50 wealthy New Yorkers about their children, homes and money issues. The lawyers, academics, hedge-fund financiers and stay-at-home mothers Ms. Sherman talked to typically felt conflicted about their position, struggling to balance their place in society with a desire to do good and raise their children well. Indeed, the concept of moral worth is the central theme of the book.

Ms. Sherman's earlier works also focused on wealth and consumption. Her first book, Class Acts: Service and Inequality in Luxury Hotels, went behind the scenes of top-end hotels and profiled workers who care for and cater to wealthy guests.

Recently Ms. Sherman, who is an associate professor of sociology at the New School, a university in New York City, discussed how the wealthy think about money and themselves.

To start, all of your interview subjects had done major home renovations. Why did you focus on this subject area?

You can't approach wealthy people saying, 'I'd like to talk to you because you're wealthy.' Eventually I realized that if I'm interested in consumption, and I'm having trouble finding people who are willing to talk to me, home renovation was a good starting point. I then moved on to other life decisions and ultimately it was a much easier way of recruiting people.

You write about two groups of wealthy people, those who have inherited their money and those who earned it. How are they different?

Employment is an important way of establishing moral worthiness or legitimacy. Everyone is appealing to their own hard work as a way of saying that they're morally worthy people.

It's obviously easier to do that if you have a job where you're earning a lot of money and you're living on that money. The stay-at-home moms have trouble with that, and the inheritors have trouble because they haven't earned the money that they live on. The stay-at-home moms will talk about how 'my husband works really hard' or 'how I used to work really hard,' as well as framing what they currently do as work.

But many of the people who are earning money also come from families that have wealth or inherited wealth, so I don't want to set this up as a total contrast. They can still draw on this idea of work, whereas people who are living only on their inherited wealth … have a little bit of a different relationship to it.

Inheritors who are working in lower-paid, often non-profit organizations really do want to be able to say that they're working hard, even though they can't use their job as an explanation for why they have what they have.

They are different politically, too, right?

People who are living only on their inherited wealth tend to have more progressive politics. Those with more progressive politics are more aware of people who have less than they do, and they seem to hold those people in their consciousness more.

Some people with extreme wealth feel guilty about it – your book points out that they take the tags off expensive bread, clothing and furniture, for example. Why do they feel this unease?

Lots of people participate in this kind of game of evaluating rich people on the basis of whether they're good, morally worthy individuals.

I think that those evaluations are very gendered: It's easier to be a very good rich man, or an entrepreneur worker, than it is to be a rich woman because of the stereotypes of wealthy women. Regardless of that, if we stop doing that, we could think a little bit more about patterns of distribution, and not whether individuals are morally worthy of what they have – which I think would be a better way to get us to a more just society.

What did conversations about major home renovations reveal about your subjects?

The division of labour is sometimes contentious around renovations, because mostly in the heterosexual couples it's the woman who's doing most of the work, regardless of whether she also has a job – although many of the women that I interviewed do not work for pay.

The husbands are trying to sometimes control the wives, and that's played out in renovations, where the men have the eye on the budget and the women are doing the legwork and making the aesthetic decisions. She feels like she still has a boss, unless they work at a better division of labour.

How do wealthy couples navigate the issue of only one spouse bringing home a large paycheque?

It's very challenging, but I don't want to say that it's all bad. What I argue in the book is that in couples where the earner being the husband is able to recognize the wife's contributions to the family as legitimate and recognize her construction of herself as having a job and really doing work, then those women talk about having less conflict in their marriages.

These women were often struggling against stereotypes of wealthy women as dilettantes who go out to lunch all day and go shopping and get their nails done and don't really take care of their own kids. They really wanted to see themselves as doing something productive and useful and contributing to their own household. When their husbands didn't see them like that – sometimes it's the husbands who have anxiety about money and it makes it hard for them to understand the way that their wives are spending money – that really became a problem.

Most of the stay-at-home moms I talked to are college-educated, about two-thirds have advanced degrees, usually business degrees or law degrees. They're not like women of a generation or two ago, where if they were in wealthy families they wouldn't have been expected to work and many wouldn't have had college degrees.

What do they do with these underutilized skills and education?

I think some of them would have preferred to continue working, but it's very difficult to do that. These women are always the primary caregiver of their children relative to their husbands – their husbands also have high-powered jobs and they travel a lot and so it's almost unfathomable that the husband would give up his job.

I don't want to overstate the extent to which they wanted to keep working – some of them did, some of them didn't. But even the ones who didn't, they are looking for something to do that is challenging and interesting to them, and some of them have found it in being very active in volunteer causes. Most say that they wouldn't go back to having a boss or very demanding clients in these professional fields when they have the freedom to reject those jobs, and so even when their kids are older they're not going to go back to work.

Many of your subjects were reluctant to give specific amounts when talking about assets and income. Why is talking about money so difficult?

People are uncomfortable with it; they say, 'I would have been more comfortable talking about my sex life.' Drawing attention to money is rude, and it also makes them feel bad, although there is a lot of variation across my samples about how bad they feel.

Some also don't call themselves affluent – they think that being truly affluent means never worrying about money, though I don't think that really makes sense as a definition. Because no matter how much money you have, you can always be worried about it, and the amount that you would need to never ever think about it is astronomical.

I think that was truly felt on their part – I think that they really did feel not completely economically secure and therefore they don't feel affluent, but I think they also didn't want to think of themselves as affluent. It's more comfortable to think we're maybe upper-middle class but we don't have too much, which is what they're associating affluence with.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

It wasn’t long ago that investing in private companies was the domain of venture capital firms and the wealthiest of investors. Now, average high net-worth individuals are buying in as well.

Interact with The Globe