The Rich: On Top of the World and Very Anxious About It

The small handful of ultrawealthy winners are firmly ensconced in their positions of privilege in power. Yet so many of them seem haunted by the possibility that maybe they don’t deserve it.

(Cavan Images / Getty Images)

Earlier this month, a columnist for the right-wing UK Telegraph penned an op-ed entitled “Gen Z are an employer’s nightmare – my twenties put them to shame.” On its face, the article itself is quite unremarkable: the usual mashup of post-pandemic employer grievances about indolent workers and paint-by-numbers complaints about Kids Today. There’s even a generic stock image of a reclining Gen Zer drinking out of a mason jar with a straw while talking on their cell phone to go with it.

Subtlety doesn’t tend to feature much in this genre of op-ed, but if I told you the author of the piece in question was the daughter of a baron educated at Eton College with the unimprovable name “Sophia Money-Coutts” you’d probably assume I was making a rather lazy and heavy-handed attempt at satire. If the name Coutts sounds familiar, that’s probably because it’s also the name of one of the world’s oldest and most successful banks. Ms Coutts’s father — whose full title is Crispin James Alan Nevill Money-Coutts, 9th Baron Latymer — is a descendent of its founder, Thomas Coutts, whose own father, John Coutts, held the title Lord Provost of Edinburgh in the 1740s and received an inheritance that would be worth roughly £5.5 million today if adjusted for inflation. Her grandfather on her mother’s side, William Francis Deedes, was a baron, Tory cabinet minister, and editor of none other than the Telegraph. Her alma mater Wycombe Abbey, a private boarding school for young women aged eleven to eighteen, currently costs £15,900 per term (or £47,700 a year).

In describing her own working life, the author doesn’t exactly strengthen her case either. Beginning with unspecified “stints on shop floors” (whatever it was she was doing, we can safely assume it didn’t involve scrubbing said floors) and a “spell in a Kennington estate agency,” Coutts says she next worked as an assistant on the Features desk at the Evening Standard.

“To an almost pathetic extent,” she writes, “I did everything that was asked of me. I made forty-two billion cups of tea. I bought my boss’s tights. I trialed Beyoncé’s maple syrup diet and Madonna’s cardio regime. I stayed late and came in early. Extremely early, some days. Once at around 4 a.m., having spent the night loitering in a West End club, trying to winkle out a quote from the son of a recently disgraced MP (he didn’t give me one).”

Needless to say, it’s more than a little absurd to see yet another cookie-cutter screed about entitled youngsters who refuse to hustle penned by someone with this pedigree. True, said youngsters may never have “trialed Beyoncé’s maple syrup diet,” but plenty of them these days are definitely working a lot harder for a lot less. Given its source, the whole thing basically reads as a burlesque parody, but it does beg a question: Why does someone like Coutts even feel the need to write such a piece in the first place?

A column like this one is what happens when the embedded privilege of the upper classes collides with the hegemonic ideology of liberal meritocracy. In earlier eras, those raised against a backdrop of inherited wealth or landed title didn’t tend to bother with such elaborate liturgies of self-justification because the legitimacy of their stations was axiomatic. Today, however, it is no longer enough to simply have wealth or class privilege: you are, ostensibly at least, supposed to earn them as well, with some combination of personal brilliance and grit generally being the designated means.

It’s tempting in this case to write off the obvious cognitive dissonance at play here as symptomatic of a specific national pathology. Britain’s Brahmin class is generally more neurotic and less self-assured than its analogues elsewhere, seeming at once deeply attached to the constellation of symbols and institutions that define it — the monarchy, the private boarding school, etc. — and perpetually insecure about the decidedly non-meritorious and quasifeudal order they exist to maintain. (Scan Coutts’s back catalog at the Telegraph, in fact, and you’ll duly find a trove of op-eds grappling anxiously with the vicissitudes of high status.)

But however distinctly British this particular case might seem, the obvious contradiction at its center — between the liberal narrative of equal opportunity and the realities of modern capitalist inequality — ultimately has a wider valence.

Notwithstanding the formal story most twenty-first-century liberal democracies tell themselves — that every citizen is functionally equal, that status is always earned, that differences in outcome more or less reflect differences in effort or talent, that rigid class society is an anachronism largely consigned to history’s dustbin, etc. — it remains the case that where you begin in life still very often determines where you end up. Those born into wealth and status almost invariably keep those things regardless of what they produce or how hard they work, just as people who grow up without them are much less likely to attain even basic economic security, let alone prosperity or success.

In one sense at least, the moneyed elite’s relationship to class is today defined by the extent of its quiescence toward these contemporary fictions. A small few among the ultrarich or high born, usually the most right wing, still explicitly cleave to an older idea of social caste that pays little deference to the egalitarian shibboleths of liberal modernity. A much larger number, however, now seems hell-bent on embracing some version of them as a means of legitimation. Those implicated in 2019’s blockbuster college admissions scandal, to give an obvious example, weren’t working-class families trying to give their children a leg up by cheating, but wealthy parents desperate to see their offspring obtain the credentials necessary to garnish their privilege with a sheen of moral desert in accordance with the reigning meritocratic script.

To some extent, then, this schizoid posture is just a psychological projection of the basic contradiction at the heart of all modern liberal societies, in which our formally embraced notions of equality persistently come up against the embedded realities of class and hierarchy. But it can also, more optimistically, be taken as a sign that the egalitarian potential of the democratic age, despite the political and ideological regress of the past four decades, is still with us.

Thanks to neoliberalism, inequality in many societies has significantly increased since the 1980s. And yet, even amid this new Gilded Age, the ambient pull of democratic ideas is still apparently strong enough that many at the top of the pyramid feel compelled to pretend their presence there is something other than an accident of birth.