Immigration To The Land Of Wealth

March 3, 2009

By Keith Whitaker , Dennis Jaffe , James Grubman - 03/5/2009

Franklin D. Roosevelt once reminded the Daughters of the American Revolution that, as Americans, we are all descendents of immigrants. Notwithstanding the minor inaccuracy of his statement-Native Americans would beg to differ-his point was that even the most-entrenched families of our culture began somewhere in humbler circumstances.  When our ancestors stepped off the boat, they faced a huge number of choices: how to interact with the natives, how much and how quickly to assimilate and how strongly to orient their children to the past or the present.

Most wealthy families in America are in an analogous situation: They are, by and large, immigrants to the Land of Wealth.  Between 70% and 85% of those in the upper 2% of wealth arrived at their position within their lifetime.  That means the overwhelming majority was raised in a lower economic class.

Just as we all have a family of origin that shaped our beliefs, identity, habits and cultural views, we have an economic culture of origin that shaped us in similar ways. As people "move on up" via business success, investment skill or fortunate marriage, it is as if they migrate from one culture to another. Like all immigrants, they carry memories and attitudes from where they grew up. They and their families then face the challenge of learning how to successfully adapt to the new culture.

The Dilemmas Of Assimilation
This challenge creates many personal difficulties. Economic immigrants import notions of how individuals and families should behave, drawn from their blue-collar or middle-class homeland. They arrive with stereotypes about wealth and often guess how to act, spend, dress, even talk.

Some never lose the sense of being an imposter, a stranger in a strange land, while others plunge into the new culture as quickly as possible, anxious to scrub away all vestiges of the old country. Some stand apart, never assimilating, never belonging. They feel embarrassed when they visit family or friends and are besieged by people who ask for money or seem to resent them. They may feel they have to hide their wealth or they may delight in conspicuous displays of their new riches.

From Whence They Came
The root of the struggle differs from scenario to scenario, but the challenge of adaptation is a common thread.  

Wealth's immigrants have experienced economic transition as a positive force. They have lived the American dream of overcoming hardship to achieve the good life. They know risk as opportunity. However, this ascent brings with it the new task of adjusting their self-image and finding new purpose at journey's end.  The challenge for immigrants is to adapt continually to new circumstances, while parenting or grandparenting children who are looking for guidance in their fundamentally different world of affluence.

Natives, on the other hand, seem to live in Alice's looking glass. For them, the family's transition upward may be a vague memory or a distant tale from long ago. Conservative as investors and cautious to preserve their status, they often think of financial risk as more likely to move them down the economic ladder. Personal financial transitions may be frightening, not exciting. Because they have no history of overcoming hardship, risk is seen as danger, not opportunity.   

Native heirs have their own identity crisis-the challenge of growing a strong personal identity and sense of purpose out of the background of wealth. An inheritor may feel like a mere appendage of a family name or an estate plan. If wealth's natives do not find ways to build identity and purpose, they may achieve neither personal happiness nor the strength to claim their personal dreams.

Arrival by marriage-an intercultural union, to follow the analogy-adds further complexity to new wealth, since prospective spouses can be drawn from any of the available economic cultures. The newly wealthy face the same dilemma as geographic immigrants. Do you marry a native who knows the land more intimately than you do or someone who shares your roots? Each choice has benefits and risks. All too often in families of wealth, new immigrants by marriage are greeted suspiciously as dangerous arrivistes from the old country. In fact, immigrants by marriage have much to offer if they bring the old-country values of responsibility, initiative and work ethic. But cross-class relationships of blue blood and new blood face many challenges that spill over into the next generation.  

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