Another Potentially Fatal Disease Infecting Society: Affluenza

While in London I had the opportunity to meet some of my daughter’s wider social circle (before the lockdown measures).

One girl in particular — who was a friend of a friend — caught my attention…for all the wrong reasons.

Over the course of an afternoon, I noticed one bottle of champagne quickly became three bottles and then onto her fourth. She was far from a happy drunk.

My daughter said that was not unusual. And apparently alcohol was not her only vice.

Cocaine was her go-to drug of choice. When she wasn’t high, she was low…depressed.

How did she support these self-destructive habits? Did she work? Not a lot. An odd job here and there. But nothing permanent.

Her parents were wealthy and provided the means for her fast-paced London lifestyle…including a two-bedroom apartment in Chelsea.

While COVID has further widened the divide between rich and poor (with poorer communities having higher infection rates), the wealthy are dealing with another potentially lethal infection…affluenza.

What’s affluenza you ask?

…a psychological malaise supposedly affecting wealthy young people, symptoms of which include a lack of motivation, feelings of guilt, and a sense of isolation.

According to Psychology Today:

In a surprising switch, the offspring of the affluent today are more distressed than other youth. They show disturbingly high rates of substance use, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, cheating, and stealing. It gives a whole new meaning to having it all.

In that checklist, there are a number of boxes the young lady in London could tick.

Affluenza first came into existence in the book The Golden Ghetto: The Psychology of Affluence, written by psychotherapist Jessie H O’Neill in 1996.

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This isn’t a book written by another academic based on theory and controlled experiments.

Jessie O’Neill is the granddaughter of Charles Erwin Wilson…past president of General Motors and also President Eisenhower’s Secretary of Defense.

In Jessie O’Neill’s words:

My grandfather was quite a wealthy man…my mother was one of his six children. When my mother died, I was 28, and I inherited about $3 million. The first thing I did was go out and buy an ounce of cocaine.

In her personal experience, inheriting wealth can be a very hollow achievement for many people. You have to find meaning in what you do…which in her case has been building a professional practice based on understanding and treating the problems that can come with great wealth.

In Jessie O’Neill’s opinion, affluenza can be described ‘as a dysfunctional or harmful relationship with money and wealth or its pursuit’.

I wish I could tell you the girl in London is an isolated case of affluenza…but she’s not.

There are plenty more examples of children who are plagued — in varying degrees — with this ‘disease’.

The parents of these children have failed to recognise the yin and yang of money…the greater the wealth, the greater responsibilities.

Money solves some problems, but also creates others…

The foreword of James Grubman’s book Strangers in Paradise: How Families Adapt to Wealth Across Generations included this (emphasis is mine):

An astonishing fact is that the vast majority of the wealthy come from middle-class or working-class backgrounds. Born and raised in modest economic circumstances, they find themselves as adults in the wonderful but unfamiliar world of wealth, like immigrants to a new land. Their adjustment is often harder than they anticipate. Yet awaiting wealth’s newcomers is an even more daunting task: how to raise children and grandchildren successfully in the family’s new world of affluence.

Nothing ever happens in a vacuum. There are always consequences for our actions.

Money solves some problems, but also creates others…as many a Lotto winner has learnt the hard way.

Failure to understand the rules and culture of this new world of affluence can and does have dire consequences.

The one question the wealth creators have either failed to ask or failed to answer, is how do we raise our children (to not only cope, but) to thrive in the new world we’ve created?

Asking this question could/would have started a process to source out information on how to strike the right balance between affluence, appreciation and gratitude.

There’s a lot of things money can buy, but it won’t ‘buy’ you out of the responsibility that comes with taking children into a world of affluence.

Paying off victims. Mobilising an army of high paid lawyers to have drug charges downgraded. Hush money to keep names out of the press.

These are no substitutes for responsible parenting.

Covering up or cleaning up for your kids sends all the wrong messages.

The only lessons learned from this sort of behaviour are bad ones.

It’s a little bizarre when you think about. Most people create wealth to build a better life for themselves and their family.

Yet, if the responsibilities are neglected, what started out as a positive ends up becoming a (major) negative.

Some of the antidotes to affluenza…

1. Projecting what it is we want them to be

Parenting is an exercise in trial and error.

All we can do is make an honest effort.

And that starts with making an honest self-assessment of ourselves.

Is the person in the mirror someone who is practicing what they preach?

Are our values, attitude towards money, lifestyles, vocabulary, biases and aspirations ones that we want to be reflected onto our children?

If you’re not sure whether you walk the talk, ask the ones you are looking to be a role model for.

2. Lead by example

If you want your children to be industrious, respectful, honest, responsible and knowledgeable, then show them how it’s done. Lead by example.

3. Invest in their learning…and they’ll invest in yours

Invest the time in making them inquisitive about life.

There are so many examples in nature, science, sport, business, construction and history that can serve as valuable life lessons.

When ecosystems are disrupted there are knock-on effects. Poorly laid foundations create structural problems.

The businessperson who lied and is shamed by the public airing of their misdeeds. People who made discoveries because they thought outside the box.

There’s a world of wonder and learning all around us.

The added benefit of creating inquiring minds is the communication skills that are developed. Explaining concepts. Answering questions. Searching for answers together.

4. Giving the freedom to grow

When our children are younger, they need rules and boundaries.

But there comes a time in their development they need to explore those boundaries for themselves.

Failure to let go, stunts their personal development and this is not healthy.

Letting go — allowing them to fall over, make mistakes, clean up their own messes — is how they develop independence, self-confidence and problem solving skills.

The freedom to grow is one of the best gifts a parent can give their children.

Some sage advice for parents of young children…

Just because you call the shots doesn’t mean you’re at the right end of the barrel.

Phil Simborg

Before you lock and load your advice and/or actions, make sure you’re aiming at the target you want to hit.

Believe me, there comes a time in the relationship where you no longer call the shots.

Your children will be old enough to include or exclude you from their world.

Be very careful with the ‘shots’ you fire in their younger years, because in your later years, they could end up being bullet holes in your feet.

If you want to raise productive, generous, independent, respectful and well-grounded children, then make sure your words and actions are aimed at hitting this target.

Failure to do so, runs the risk of our children catching affluenza…a potentially fatal disease.


Vern Gowdie Signature

Vern Gowdie,
Editor, The Rum Rebellion

Vern has been involved in financial planning since 1986.

In 1999, Personal Investor magazine ranked Vern as one of Australia’s Top 50 financial planners.

His previous firm, Gowdie Financial Planning, was recognised in 2004, 2005, 2006 & 2007, by Independent Financial Adviser magazine as one of the top five financial planning firms in Australia.

In 2005, Vern commenced his writing career with the ‘Big Picture’ column for regional newspapers and was a commentator on financial matters for Prime Radio talkback.

In 2008, he sold his financial planning firm due to concerns about an impending economic downturn and the impact this would have on the investment industry.

In 2013, he joined Fat Tail Investment Research as editor of Gowdie Family Wealth. In 2015, his book The End of Australia sold over 20,000 copies and launched his second premium newsletter, The Gowdie Letter.

Vern has since published two other books, A Parents Gift of Knowledge, all about the passing of investing intelligence from father to daughter, and How Much Bull can Investors Bear, an expose on the investment industry’s smoke and mirrors.

His contrarian views often place him at odds with the financial planning profession today, but Vern’s sole motivation is to help investors like you to protect their own and their family’s wealth.

Vern is Founder and Chairman of The Gowdie Advisory and The Gowdie Letter advisory service.

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