How inequality is making the 1 percent miserable, too
When your whole life revolves around maintaining status, things can get ugly
On the morning of April 16, Sarvshreshth Gupta — "Sav" to his co-workers at Goldman Sachs — fell to his death from his San Francisco apartment building.
The 22-year-old financial analyst and University of Pennsylvania graduate had been pulling a string of all-nighters and 100-hour workweeks, and even tried to quit in March due to the overwhelming stress. It's not clear what, if any, connection can be drawn between Gupta's death and the way the Goldman Sachs office had swallowed the rest of his life. But as Andrew Ross Sorkin reflected in The New York Times, the tragedy is just the latest in a string of deaths involving young employees at Wall Street firms in the last year. Some of them were caused by accidents, drug overdoses, or the mental costs of exhaustion, and some were flat-out suicides.
Without a doubt, the most important and most numerous victims of American economic injustice are the poor. But amongst all the other arguments against inequality and runaway capitalism, it's worth sparing a thought for the possibility that it makes the elite miserable as well, just in different ways. That, while the upper class is well-provided for, the way the economy provides for them comes with all sorts of baleful psychological, cultural, and moral costs.
As Sorkin notes, people in financial services are 1.5 times more likely to commit suicide than the average for the country as a whole. And upper class professionals like doctors, dentists, and veterinarians have the highest suicide rates of all. Nor do we have to use any metric so dramatic as suicide. In the last three decades, as inequality was spiking, leisure time increased for workers with less than a high school diploma, stayed about the same for the middle class, and dropped for workers with advanced degrees. This was while the number of annual hours worked by the average U.S. employee remained relatively flat, and fell for most other Western countries.
In fact, recent research shows a number of employees at high-powered firms are "faking" workaholism by rejiggering client loads, quietly blowing off work to be with family, and arranging informal office networks to cover for one another. The really telling thing about work culture among the upper class is that none of them were punished in terms of income or performance reviews for this behavior; only the workers (mainly female) who explicitly requested lighter schedules paid a price.
As Derek Thompson once noted, the whole narrative that America is overworked is really just a product of how the upper class experience dominates the public discourse.
The elite also loses a lot else that's less concrete than free time and relaxation. The trend towards later marriages and fewer children (and sometimes no children at all) is strongest in the upper class, meaning families are thinner: People have fewer close family members to lean on for support, grandparents and grandchildren don't have much time to get to know one another, etc. Some of the major American cities where upper class professionals concentrate are in fact so populated by childless couples that raising children in them is becoming an awkward cultural experience. Even if kids aren't your bag, personally speaking, you have to admit that — given how central raising children is to the human race writ large — this is at least a rather weird development.
Of course, poorer women are both more likely to have children younger and less likely to marry at all. The funny thing is, there's little evidence that when upper or lower class women have children matters much for their long-term economic outcomes. Family structure and norms about marriage, education, and kids — and how to sequence those things — looks to be a cultural symptom of material conditions rather than a driver of material conditions. Perhaps the economic extremes produced by inequality at both the top and the bottom produce their own particular forms of maladjustment.
Finally, there's what happens when upper class parents do have kids. Helicopter parenting is by now a well-known vice of the upper class. It also looks like the children of the elite pay a price for this in human terms once they reach college; they get excellent grades and are enormously accomplished, but they're also risk-averse and weirdly cookie-cutter.
"I taught many wonderful young people during my years in the Ivy League," William Deresiewicz wrote in The New Republic in 2014, in a piece aptly titled "Don't Send Your Kids to the Ivy League."
"Bright, thoughtful, creative kids whom it was a pleasure to talk with and learn from. But most of them seemed content to color within the lines that their education had marked out for them. Very few were passionate about ideas. Very few saw college as part of a larger project of intellectual discovery and development. Everyone dressed as if they were ready to be interviewed at a moment’s notice."
The great retort to the left's concerns about inequality is that the gap between the top and bottom doesn't matter. What matters is high social mobility: the ability of people with talent to rise to the top, and the assurance that people without talent will not remain at the top.
But in human terms this makes no sense. If it's a long fall from the top of the economy to the bottom, or even to the middle, then a high degree of mobility is the last thing the average elite parent will want. They will scrape and claw and deploy every resource and maximize every opportunity to ensure their child does not fall; that the parent's status at the top of the economic strata is passed on. And they've done a good job: A person born rich but who never got a college degree is still 2.5 times more likely to be rich as an adult than someone who was born poor and did get a college degree.
One of the reasons America is so unequal is because our social safety net is far skimpier than those of other Western countries. Which means, by definition, that the majority of the income Americans need to live on, they get from their job. Which probably goes a long way towards explaining why "the job" plays such a central role in American culture, and why workaholism is so prevalent in the upper class. Conversely, a bigger safety net would come with the tacit assumption that work isn't everything, and that it's not that big a deal if you're not as successful as your parents.
In short, one way of getting the elite on board with the fight against inequality might be asking them this: Why are you doing this to yourself?