I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the issues that come with affluence. Part of this is because there’s been a slew of recent articles and books that look at inequality in America and the decrease in socioeconomic mobility: see, for example, the recent cover story in The Atlantic, or Reeves’ much-commented book Dream Hoarders, or any number of other stories that arose in the recent tax overhaul.

One common thread in this story is that while the super-rich are certainly getting richer, a lot of inequality is also driven by the upper decile of households by income – essentially the demographic we label as white collar professionals (for reference, the upper decile starts around $160k in household income). This threshold is pretty easy to reach for a two-earner college educated professional household, especially in an urban area. The issue, though, is that it’s pretty enduring – if you’re born in the upper decile, chances are pretty good you’ll spend a decent chunk of your life in it, and if you aren’t born to it, it’s hard to crack.

There’s a lot of reasons for this – assortative mating (no one marries their secretary any more), the Big Sort (rich people cluster together more and more), educational quality being increasingly tied to affluence, the growing competitiveness of admission to top universities, etc. Most of it, however, boils down to the fact that people in the upper decile lavish massive attention and resources on their kids, even as they (both) work like dogs in challenging jobs that are well-compensated. And thus these kids get the best education, the best connections, the best internships, allowing them to get into the best universities (and excel there!), etc, etc. It’s not guaranteed, but this breed of household does a pretty good job of perpetuating their income and wealth status to future generations.

This reality is deeply familiar to me (and, I suspect, to a number of others here), mostly because I live it. The town described in that Atlantic piece I linked to? It’s where I live – a town with the highest per capita concentration of doctorates in the United States (14% I think?). My Zip code probably doesn’t qualify for a SuperZip – too many young people in training or the beginning of their careers to meet the income thresholds. But the Zip code next door in the same town probably does. The public schools where I live are among the best in the country, supported by high-ish property taxes on eye-wateringly high property values. Some ridiculously high percentage of adults are college graduates. Unemployment is essentially nonexistent.

My social circle almost exclusively includes couples where at least one member invariably has an advanced graduate or professional degree, and both couples invariably work as professionals with combined incomes very comfortably inside the upper decile. The older people I know in the community are generally ridiculously successful – the executive who sold his company to Google for a 9-digit sum, the former CEO (and major shareholder) of a major apparel firm that was sold for a 10 digit sum, too many high-flying professors at MIT/Harvard/etc. to count, world-renowned clinicians, bestselling authors, etc. It’s intimidating to say the least, but you get the point – the place is just dripping with highly educated, driven, successful people. They’re not all rich, but they’re all at least comfortable.

What’s fascinating, though, is that very few of the people my age feel particularly well-off. We live in nice but not sumptuous rented accommodations that are quite expensive (property values are too high for most of us to buy anything); we mostly have 1 or 2 kids for whom we’re paying for childcare (figure $20k-30k per kid depending on ages and work schedules), we sock away money religiously in retirement and college savings accounts, and after all of that, there’s not a whole lot left for luxuries or feeling particularly well-off. In fact, most of us work so hard that we don’t have time for more than the occasional date night - after our kids go to sleep, we’re back at work, and at least one spouse generally has work to do over the weekend. Everyone I know pretty much works their butts off professionally while simultaneously being heavily involved as parents. There’s little time for anything else.

Of course, all of this pays off – our kids grow up bright and capable, our careers advance, and our diligent saving pays off with a nice nest egg. And it’s hard to point a finger of blame at people who are more or less model citizens – productive workers, generally law-abiding, good/involved parents, etc. They are even generally left-of-center and happily pay their taxes (which amount to a pretty penny). But we also know that by concentrating so much resources on subsequent generations, we are compounding a broad inequality problem.

The solutions people have proposed to this are varied and well-known – I won’t go into it in detail, though they all generally revolve around improving equality of opportunity. What I’d like to discuss instead is how growing up in the kind of environment affects kids.

I didn’t grow up like this; my neighborhood growing up was comfortably middle class – the Zip code’s household income hovered around the median for the US, and only ~40% of adults had college degrees. My corner of the neighborhood was a bit more prosperous, but not dramatically so. I happened to attend school with kids from more prosperous suburbs – one definitely fit the criterion of a SuperZip. The difference was palpable. It wasn’t just that they had designer clothes, more spending money, nicer cars, and much nicer homes. It was also an attitude – a certain blasé assumption that things would always work out okay.

I won’t try to claim that I had it so hard, but I definitely was aware that my parents’ finances growing up were always seriously strained (partly because they invested so much in educating their kids). Money was always an issue, though it wasn’t such a problem that I was ever seriously deprived. And because of this – because I have a keen sense of the value of sound finances, and don’t take success for granted – I have tended to be much more cautious with how I approach life. Oh, I take all sorts of risks (hell, I was employee number 4 at my startup!), but they’re carefully calculated, and I always have a backup. I always live within my means and have a dislike of conspicuous consumption. I’m uncomfortable hiring people to do services that I consider only for rich people. Etc.

As my kids grow up, though, I think they’ll have a very different experience. Everyone they see is reasonably well off, and often fairly young (thanks to all of the local universities and teaching hospitals). They’re diverse on the surface – by race, religion, nationality – the number of different languages our daughter hears at daycare or the playground is pretty astonishing. But dig a bit and everyone who looks so different on the surface is pretty similar below – similar schooling, professions, outlooks on life. The kids with whom they will attend school are either going to be relatively well-off (like we will be), or flat-out wealthy.

I’m not really worried about making a bunch of lazy brats – my demographic doesn’t really do that. Our kids are likely to work damned hard to meet very high expectations. But I worry that affluence is corrosive in other ways. It makes them think that it’s normal to work 80 hour weeks because you’re one of a handful of people in the world who are qualified to do a job; that anyone can get ahead; that everyone has the opportunities they have been given.

So – what do you think? How do you provide the best upbringing possible but still teach your kids that affluence is not a birthright, and not even entirely earned? How do you explain that not everyone is blessed to have both parents employed as knowledge workers in a world where the bottom of the labor market is in freefall? How do you make them understand the value of their position, and make them willing to share some of the resulting windfall?