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  1. Wealth
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April 11, 2024

Nepo babies aren’t a harmless – or new – phenomenon 

The issue of inherited privilege is a social labyrinth that stretches back centuries, writes Guido Alfani

By Guido Alfani

Today’s Western societies tend to find great wealth and privilege more acceptable if it is accrued because of personal merit, rather than through inheritance. There’s evidence for this in the recent and particularly harsh criticism of ‘nepo babies’ – those whose standing seems likely to have been enhanced by their powerful or notable parents, who have often practised the same occupation or a closely related one.

The most visible cases of ‘nepo babies’ are the children of beloved media celebrities, but this is a much broader and more long-standing issue, as has been shown by many studies of social mobility across history. The intra-family transmission of certain elite occupations, such as that of lawyer, doctor or politician, has been going on for centuries.

[See also: What is succession planning? How to pass on wealth, control and knowledge to the next generation]

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At first glance, the solution to the problem (for progressives or supporters of meritocracy) appears clear: fight nepotism! But things are more complicated than they appear. Have all the descendants of the wealthy and the notable inherited the personal qualities and the attitudes that allowed their parents and ancestors to establish their position? Surely not. But are all of those born into economic privilege incompetent and lazy? Again, surely not so, on what grounds should they be forbidden to follow in the footsteps of their parents?

It is not by chance that in his Divine Comedy Dante Alighieri places the hoarders and the spenders together in the fourth circle of hell, as if society could not decide on which was the worse behaviour. Today, would the children of the wealthy and famous be liked better were they all dissolute, lazy and collectively incapable of following the example of the previous generation?

And yet, the systematic transmission of economic privilege is potentially very harmful to society. Importantly, this primarily concerns the transmission not of wealth, but of status and of a somewhat recognised ‘right’ to occupy a high position in society.

Old money vs. new money

Kaia Gerber and Austin Butler
Nepo baby Kaia Gerber, Cindy Crawford’s daughter, has followed in her mother’s footsteps to become a model / Image: Shutterstock

Members of an aristocracy are defined by possessing some sort of privilege, which must be protected from outsiders – as a privilege shared too widely is no privilege at all. This is one reason why, across history, we find so many examples of ‘old money’ families trying to stifle the social ambitions of ‘new money’ ones. Consider Gilded Age America, where the likes of Alva Vanderbilt and Caroline Schermerhorn Astor tried to mark a boundary between families that mattered socially in New York and all others, as rich as they might be.

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[See also: A rich man’s plaything: the case for billionaire newspaper ownership]

Of course, no aristocracy has ever been entirely impermeable to new money. The Vanderbilts themselves had struggled to gain acceptance: the plights of the fictional character Bertha Russell in the HBO TV series The Gilded Age is modelled on the difficulties of Alva Vanderbilt, who spent lavishly to buy her entry into the New York aristocracy. Often America’s new-money families tried to accelerate the process by acquiring some connection to Old World nobility – matching the pressing cash-flow requirements of many a European noble.

By the end of the 19th century, more than half the young women newly presented at court in Britain were commoners, and many among them were the daughters of rich American industrialists, such as Alva Vanderbilt’s daughter Consuelo, who was ushered into an unhappy marriage with Charles Spencer-Churchill, the 9th Duke of Marlborough.

Nepo babies aren’t harmless

One might argue that, if the wealthy and privileged want to occupy their time with squabbles over pecking order, no harm comes to society. Indeed, the rest of us can enjoy the show, as the people of New York did during the Gilded Age. But this is not quite right. There is harm, in the way that opportunities for upward mobility based on one’s skill, hard work and ‘merit’ are diminished.

[See also: Why the Great Wealth Transfer will be a dangerous time for global capitalism]

For every successful Vanderbilt-like family, there were many Gilded Age entrepreneurs who were pushed down and suffered economic damage because they were never given access to the full range of opportunities (economic or otherwise) open to the wealth aristocracy. Today, nepo babies occupy positions for which others might be better qualified.

As I argue in my book As Gods among Men, there is good evidence to show that the reduction of socio-economic mobility, which is often associated with the establishment of relatively rigid aristocracies, frequently precedes the end of a phase of exceptional economic prosperity. This should give pause to all, wealthy aristocrats included.

Guido Alfani is professor of economic history at Bocconi University. His book, As Gods among Men: a History of the Rich in the West, is published by Princeton University Press.

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