Skip to main content

Early in Warren Buffett’s life, his father failed to get hired at the family grocery store during the Great Depression. Without a job, and without any money after a run on the banks, the family of four ran up a tab of grocery bills at the store to put food on the table, and even then, his mother sometimes skipped meals.

From this nadir, the family gradually achieved more secure financial footing. His father started a stock brokerage and eventually went on to become a four-term congressman. Young Warren started showing an aptitude for numbers. He became obsessed with timing everything, calculating odds, even tallying the frequency of the letters that appeared in the Bible most frequently, according to The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life. By age 15 he managed to earn thousands working his local paper route. The rest, as they say, is history.

Recently the legendary investor, 87, was surpassed in wealth by 34-year-old Mark Zuckerberg. The gap was closed in part by Facebook’s surging stock – up 15 per cent this year so far – and in part by Mr. Buffett’s large charitable cash outflows.

Story continues below advertisement

Today, the three richest people in the world, Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates and Zuckerberg, have all made their fortunes in tech.

By age 15, Warren Buffett managed to earn thousands working his local paper route.

Rick Wilking/Reuters

Compared with Mr. Buffett and many of his contemporaries, Mr. Zuckerberg’s childhood was more banal. He grew up in Dobbs Ferry, a small middle-class suburb of New York, the son of a dentist and a psychiatrist. He started using his father’s computer at a young age, and showed an early facility for programming, before graduating from an elite prep school.

Mr. Zuckerberg’s story is typical of the slate of newly minted technology billionaires in the ranks of the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. And there are a lot of them. With 64 technology businessmen and women on Bloomberg’s list, which tracks the world’s 500 richest people, the industry has produced more billionaires than any other (unless you count inheritances). This year alone, tech has created 11 new billionaires.

But there’s something missing from the foundational stories of this new group of self-made men (yes, they’re mostly men).

Where earlier generations’ formative experiences revolved around paper routes and pathos, today’s prototypical founding story involves an upper-middle-class childhood, early access to a computer, and an elite education – even if that education was abandoned.

Mark Zuckerberg grew up in a small middle-class suburb of New York, the son of a dentist and a psychiatrist. He showed an early facility for programming, before graduating from an elite prep school.

Marcio Jose Sanchez/The Associated Press

Before he famously walked out of Harvard University, Mr. Zuckerberg created an instant messaging system for his dad’s dental practice at age 12. At 15, Twitter’s Jack Dorsey was dazzling his bosses during a programming internship. And Uber’s Travis Kalanick was writing code by middle school.

The self-made man has always played a profound role in the North American imagination. Horatio Alger wrote stories of plucky, lower-class strivers who made their way in the world by dint of honesty and hard work. Hollywood has fetishized the underdog since movies were invented. And for years, the business world offered real stories, too.

Story continues below advertisement

But the modern rise of the Harvard dropout (or New York University in Mr. Dorsey’s case, or UCLA in Mr. Kalanick’s case) complicates that story. Today’s founders are long on brilliance but short on hardship. It’s difficult, after all, to become a computer prodigy without a computer.

That dollop of privilege speaks to a larger trend in the American economy: For millions of low-income people, it’s getting harder to build something from nothing. In order to drop out of Harvard, first you have to get in.

Mr. Buffett, with a father who was a politician and investor, often jokes that despite the family’s temporary bout with poverty, he won the “ovarian lottery.” He would eventually attend Columbia Business School and study with renowned investor Benjamin Graham.

Harold Hamm was the youngest of 13 children of Oklahoma sharecroppers, and he drilled his first oil well at age 25.

LARRY SMITH/BLOOMBERG NEWS/LARRY SMITH/BLOOMBERG NEWS

But for many leaders of Mr. Buffett’s generation, dorm rooms weren’t a part of the origin story. Consider Bruton Smith, who until he stepped down as CEO of Speedway Motorsports Inc. in 2015 at age 88, was one of the oldest serving public company leaders. Mr. Smith grew up on a farm, never went to college, and once took a shotgun to a construction site to settle a labour dispute. Oil baron Harold Hamm, born in 1945 as the youngest of 13 children of Oklahoma sharecroppers, drilled his first oil well at age 25 (it eventually paid for college). And then there’s recently deceased casino and movie magnate Kirk Kerkorian, born in 1917, who faked documentation of a high-school graduation in order to join the military as a pilot.

In some ways, it’s great to live in the age of the nerd. And it’s tough to mourn the decline of Wall Street-style corporate machismo. But a poor kid growing up today may find it much harder to emulate the life path of someone like Mr. Zuckerberg, who coded an instant messaging system before hitting puberty, than that of even Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, who grew up in Brooklyn housing projects and at one point served concessions at Yankee Stadium to earn extra money.

Statistically as well as anecdotally, true rags-to-riches stories are becoming rarer. Class mobility, as defined by the percentage of children who earn more than their parents, has been in a state of mostly uninterrupted decline since the 1940s. Economist Raj Chetty found that only about half of the children born in 1980 have surpassed their parents’ income. In 1940, that number exceeded 90 per cent.

Story continues below advertisement

Of course, most successful entrepreneurs have earnings that vastly outstrip their parents’. In fact, they outstrip the earnings of nearly every human in history. In by-now-familiar statistics, the rate of income growth at the top levels of earning in the United States have far outpaced growth at the bottom segments (in the 1980s, it was the other way around, according to research by Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman). Last year Oxfam International found that more than 80 per cent of earnings went to the top 1 per cent of the world population.

That so many of today’s new billionaires mostly come from comfortable backgrounds is emblematic of a broader concentration of wealth. According to recent Federal Reserve data, the median family’s net worth had not recovered its pre-recession value by 2016, while the top 10 per cent gained double digits since 2007.

Elon Musk, an immigrant from South Africa, came from wealth but was bullied as a kid before moving to Canada alone at age 17.

Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

Of course, you can still find evidence of rough patches and plenty of hard work in the early childhoods of today’s wealthiest tech luminaries.

Elon Musk, 47, an immigrant from South Africa, came from wealth but was bullied as a kid before moving to Canada alone at just 17, where he enrolled in Queens University and transferred to the University of Pennsylvania, before eventually dropping out of a Stanford University PhD program. Jeff Bezos, 54, was born when his mother was 16 years old, and was adopted by her second husband, a Cuban immigrant and an engineer. And Sergey Brin, 44, came to the U.S. as a six-year-old, when his parents traded the anti-Semitic backdrop of Moscow academia for a new life overseas.

But even these founders, who all had at least one parent with a science background, stand in contrast to an earlier era.

According to the Bloomberg Billionaire Index, the second-oldest self-made American billionaire is Amway’s Richard DeVos, born in 1926. He was a boy when his father lost his job as an electrician during the Great Depression, and the family moved in with his grandparents. He remembered stuffing a baseball with fabric and tying it together because he and his friends couldn’t afford a new one. As a sophomore, he was labeled “not college material,” sent to trade school, and had to work to pay his way back into the local Christian high school.

Casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, 84, grew up in a working-class Boston neighbourhood as the son of a taxi driver.

The Associated Press

Ted Lerner, who at 92 is the oldest self-made man on the Bloomberg index, is the son of a clothing salesman from Palestine. He grew up in an immigrant community in Washington, and recalled to a local paper, “I remember chickens being plucked and koshered on Georgia Avenue.” Casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, 84, now a controversial figure in U.S. politics, grew up in a working-class Boston neighbourhood as the son of a taxi driver. Eli Broad, born in 1933, is the son of a Lithuanian house painter, went on to become the only man to found two Fortune 500 companies in two different industries: housing and financial services.

It is, of course, not the fault of tech’s young luminaries that the economy has shifted toward technological skills. Even as it’s boosted Americans’ standard of living, the rapid pace of innovation has made education an increasingly important factor in determining income, a trend that in turn has exacerbated rising inequality.

Overall educational attainment in the U.S. is rising, but nearly 70 per cent of the adult population has still never graduated from college. That’s even though higher education has increasingly become a prerequisite for white-collar work. The college wage premium, or what bachelor’s degree holders make compared with high-school graduates, has skyrocketed since the 1970s and now hovers at about 50 per cent, near-record levels.

The so-called “digital divide” between rich and poor households has reinforced the gap between haves and have-nots. Despite the pervasiveness of personal computing, poor kids today are less likely to have access to the programs that could help them develop early coding genius.

Travis Kalanick, creator of Uber, was writing code by middle school and later dropped out of UCLA.

RICHARD PERRY/NYT

According to Pew Research Center data, 87 per cent of households with an income of $75,000 or higher use broadband at home. But for households making less than $30,000, it’s only 45 per cent.

This is not a lamentation of the comfortable childhoods of today’s corporate leaders. In some ways, the American myth of the up-from-nothing elite was always mostly imagined. The likelihood that a child today will rise from the lowest to the highest quintile of earnings is less than 10 per cent. That’s low compared with other rich countries, according to Chetty’s data, but it’s not much changed since the 1970s.

The American Dream has always been a story bolstered by the hardscrabble tales of men who rose from nothing to become magnates. Today, Mr. Zuckerberg is a moral leader – a family man, and a donor to noble causes. But those looking to follow in his footsteps will cast an eye back to his early days: To the comfortable Westchester upbringing, the fencing club captainship at an elite prep school and the insouciant Harvard days.

Youth may aspire to climb the same ladder, but they’re likely to find it’s missing some rungs.

Report an error
Comments

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • All comments will be reviewed by one or more moderators before being posted to the site. This should only take a few moments.
  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed. Commenters who repeatedly violate community guidelines may be suspended, causing them to temporarily lose their ability to engage with comments.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.
Cannabis pro newsletter