Wealth Ain't Nothing But a Number
True story—I heard this through the grapevine:
A self-made man who has also become a newly arrived snob gets to know an even larger snob and his colleague over a series of business meetings. The larger snob has observed that the self-made man, maybe a bit too eager to show just how self-made he is, wears a different flashy tie every single time they meet. Larger snob finally can’t keep it inside him and tells him: “I bet you buy your antiques.”
The bigger punchline is that the tie-wearer doesn’t get the joke, and the bitter sweetener is that he and his colleague exchange laughs with their eyes because they both saw what he did there.
I hear that stories about “generational wealth” and their practitioners and recipients are super popular articles these days. It’s pretty safe to assume that most—if not all, statistically speaking—of those who click on these articles and read them are quite outside this lifestyle category.
Or is it even a category? A quick scan shows that generational wealth generally means any kind of wealth that families can pass down to their children or grandchildren: It can take the form of cash, investments, companies, or physical assets—including family antiques, of course.
If I had 10 pesos for every time I hear a story about this or that piece of furniture having once belonged to some haciendero or statesman in our Spanish or Commonwealth past, I’d have generated some of my own wealth as well, by now. I mean, I don’t know a lot of people who are this type of rich, but since they are prone to telling the same furniture origin story millions of times, it can all sort of add up to a tidy sum in the bank—though with quickly diminishing interest.
That said, I wonder how all those avid readers (including myself—full disclosure) really feel about what they read. I guess I can really only speak mostly for myself when I say there’s a bit of awe in there, a lot of envy, maybe a bit of misplaced wistfulness, like I am quite sure if that wayward great grandfather of mine hadn’t fallen into drinking or womanizing after the War, we’d be part of that club. There’s also a little voice in me that says, in a stage whisper: Landgrabber! Oligarch!
Outside of our feudal cage, though, the idea of generational wealth is more generous, if you will. When I set my VPN to the United States, what comes to me are helpful listicles that enumerate how Americans, for example, can start building their own generational wealth, with advice ranging from “talk about it with your family” to “get professional help.” There are sunny pictures of old men planting seedlings in the garden while their rosy-cheeked grandchildren watch, or handsome old married couples walking on the shoreline, or the same couples playing board games (because the future can’t be dated with electronic gadgets) with their middle-aged children. But even the local news is quick to pick up items on ultra-late-capitalist pals like Bezos and Branson booking flights on each other’s spaceships.
Showing off one’s wealth is exactly not how the wealthy got rich.
I am reminded of two short stories I used to teach side by side, way back when I was a lecturer at U.P. Diliman—so way back that my classroom had an unofficial smoking section: James Joyce’s “Araby” and NVM Gonzalez’s “The Bread of Salt,” both beautifully written stories that capture the painful ritual of the coming-of-age of two poor young boys. I won’t spoil the splendid writing by revealing too much, but in my class, I focus on the ending, where the boys in the stories confront their feelings.
In “Araby,” a young Irish boy dazzled by the mercantile environment in a Dublin bazaar is suddenly lost and alone, a “creature derided by vanity” with eyes “burning with anguish and anger”; in “The Bread of Salt,” a young Filipino boy heading home after playing music for an asalto (a surprise party) held by a wealthy family finds himself embarrassed and hungry, each distinct feeling both a cause and an effect of the other.
The difference, perhaps, between the two stories, is that maybe the Irish boy knows he can one day rise up with his anger and his money, and the Filipino boy knows that he will never move from his place in life.
But maybe I’m also putting too much of myself into the story. Maybe I’m putting myself down, too, just like all those readers of stories about the exceedingly wealthy above us unknowingly do—thinking they’ll never have that kind of mad money, or if only they did, or shame on those who do.
Additionally, as that opening anecdote proves, even if someone did rise through the muck of systematic Filipino feudalism, they might still be shamed by the freshness of their cash and the crassness of their flash. After all, showing off one’s wealth is exactly not how the wealthy got rich.
For upper crusters, judging from all the anecdotes I’ve heard and the glances askance I’ve endured, there is, apparently, a sweet spot: It’s kind of okay to be self-made, but you need to be self-aware, and aware in front of others, of where you really are in the journey. And you’ll never be where you want to be in your lifetime because this kind of journey generally takes at least three generations, or just about the time it takes for one of your fixtures to be called a proper antique (otherwise it’s just “old” or “vintage”). And let’s not talk about class, which can never be bought, but only acquired.
Or actually let’s not talk about anything, because we should just eat the rich instead of aspiring to be rich. Especially the generationally rich—those who were simply born to it or (worse?) married to it.
But I’m beginning to think it’s the older generations’ fault to associate the #goals we see with the goals we feel we should have for ourselves—or worse, the goals others should have. To Generation Z or Alpha today, the idea of hustling may simply mean following oneself instead of what we grew up to know: Everyone had a relative who was a “hustler,” someone who was always on the make, or worse, on the take, but who would always manage to land on his two feet.
The young Filipino boy in “The Bread of Salt,” quite an old story set in even older times, had a hustle: He was in a band that sang, literally, for their supper. But instead of dining on leftovers from the wealthy spread, he chooses to wait for his lowly pan de sal at the streetside bakery. He feels a longing for the other side, sure, the same way we long for the swag and the swagger that rich kids on IG show off on their IG stories. But the story, by title, by character, and by agency (or lack thereof), entirely belongs to him—the way the plot of the world we live in almost completely belongs to younger people today.
It seems that for younger people today, the word “hustle” has lost much of its hard edge and has acquired a softer, nobler meaning, as something one needs to do in order to help one do the more meaningful things in life. For most of the youth, this “meaning” does not include the idea of choosing to pursue wealth. A lot of research reveals that younger generations can no longer afford what once was the most modest starter pack of generational wealth: their own home, their own car, and their own small investment portfolio.
They’re appropriating wealth by liking and commenting on it, and that’s as good as it gets.
Maybe what the young are really doing when they perform the black-mirror fantasy of gawking at stories and photos of rich kids and making the 300,000th like as if they knew it mattered is this: If they can’t eat the rich, they might as well collect them. They’re appropriating wealth by liking and commenting on it, and that’s as good as it gets. After all, to some degree, everyone on Instagram is sort of equal—they’re all digital entities performing their lives, no matter how much or how little money they, or their parents, have in the bank. Maybe it’s not really about being rich as much as pantomiming it: striking cat poses on Suites Class beds or making finger hearts on private islands, being a spectacle to anyone who wishes to look, but also kind of inaccessible.
The pantomime happens on both sides of the screen: Do people want to be them? Sure. But they can’t, so they won’t. Whether one blames the genetic lottery, or on who did what wrong in one’s family tree, the reasons for anguish and anger are real: We live in a state where wealth belongs, or can be created, only by the very few.
I can conceive of a day when wealth no longer has quite the same cachet it used to have—whether one percent, or simply because the one percent have safely jettisoned themselves into escape velocity and out of visible society. Call it “out of sight, out of mind,” and it seems that most of the 99 percent will be out of cash and out of resources, too. But if this is the way the poor will be inheriting the earth, maybe, in the final count, the earth should be all the better for it.