The millennials giving up fortunes for social justice
Baby boomers in the West will leave more than $15 trillion to their children this decade, but some don’t want to bank what they see as tainted inheritances
Morgan Curtis grew up in a wealthy English family whose fortune dates back to the colonization of the United States. Even as a child she was aware that she was a privileged person in an unfair world. As a teenager, the youth climate movement showed her that colonialism, white supremacy and capitalism were the root cause of the climate crisis. She realized then that her family was part of the problem. “The wealth that represented security for me was causing a lot of harm to others. I decided to completely divest my stock market investments and redistribute 100% of my inherited wealth to social movements and land projects benefitting black and indigenous communities,” Curtis told EL PAÍS. She has already distributed 75% of her inherited wealth.
Curtis’ activism belies the financial world’s forecast of a huge transfer of wealth from baby boomers to their millennial descendants that will make them the richest generation in history, according to a 2019 Forbes article on the Wealth-X consulting firm’s Family Wealth Transfer Report 2019, which predicted that more than $15 trillion ($8.8 trillion in the US and $3.2 trillion in Europe alone) would be passed on from one generation to the next worldwide by 2030. But not all millennials stand to inherit equally. In a world where wealth, not income, increasingly produces more wealth, the great generational money transfer is likely to lead to more inequality.
Thomas Piketty wrote in Capital in the 21st Century (2013) that having a top-notch résumé is no longer a guarantee of success, because inherited wealth is almost as decisive now as it was when Honoré de Balzac documented the French people’s struggle for higher social status in Le Père Goriot (1835). In their academic study on inheritance and wealth, Pedro Salas-Rojo and Juan Gabriel Rodríguez conclude that inheritances currently account for “at least 60% of wealth inequality in Spain and the United States” and “more than 40% in Canada and Italy.” Every generation has some level of dependence on their ancestors, but political scientist Pablo Simón says: “The precarious situation caused by a dysfunctional labor market and welfare state problems mean fewer people will be able to achieve financial independence through income alone.”
This may be why some people like Curtis are uncomfortable with their inherited wealth and want to bring a halt to the vicious cycle of inequality. Curtis belongs to Resource Generation, a US-based “multiracial membership community of young people (18-35) with wealth and/or class privilege committed to the equitable distribution of wealth, land, and power.”
Resource Generation now has offshoots in the UK, Germany and Canada. These “class traitors,” as sociologist Raquel Sherman has dubbed them, are mostly young people who have rejected their inherited fortunes. “It’s a culturally interesting and counterintuitive attitude because our society says that accumulating money is good,” she says. Sherman told this newspaper that while the upper classes have always produced radicals, “this version is different because there’s an organization behind it.”
Resource Generation was founded in the 1990s, but hit its stride in 2021 when its membership increased by 65% over 2019. The organization claims to have 1,200 dues-paying members in the US alone. Its British offshoot, Resource Justice, was founded in 2018 and has more than 90 participants in its Praxis program for addressing individual relationships with money.
It’s not philanthropy, or at least not a typical form of altruistic giving. While the upper classes disdain talking about money, these people talk a lot about it – the systems that enable wealth accumulation, the damage caused by great wealth, and the acquired behavioral patterns of wealthy people. Kristina Johansson, the co-founder of Resource Justice, says the idea is to “not take advantage of legal loopholes, but to find ways of paying more taxes as rich people.” The idea is also about developing a program of charitable giving without any strings attached. Another Resource Generation member, Susanna Penfield, told EL PAÍS that it’s important to “avoid replicating the power dynamics between those who have money and those who don’t, and to facilitate self-determination for those who receive donated money.”
Penfield began wrestling with her inheritance from her grandfather’s real estate fortune in the summer of 2020. “Until then, my grandfather’s inheritance was abstract to me, but when the protests over George Floyd’s murder happened, I began feeling that the fight against inequality needed support from white people with money.” Feminist protests, racial equality, the climate crisis, gender and sexuality issues, and the pandemic: all are cited by young, wealthy people from liberal families at odds with their class privilege.
Before Londoner Stephanie Brobbey established The Good Ancestor Movement in September 2021, she was working as a private wealth lawyer developing asset protection and wealth accumulation strategies for future generations. She observed that her clients often talked paradoxically about philanthropy as a way to avoid taxes, while simultaneously investing in extractive industries, fossil fuels and the stock market. “It’s a system based on exploitation and resource extraction,” she says. Her clients now include people whose fortunes were generated in apartheid-era South Africa seeking to channel capital to the communities harmed by that regime.
Is guilt motivating these wealthy people to change the system? Penfield, who wrote her university thesis on the role of guilt in destructive cycles of privilege, says: “Guilt can be very productive. But that means not wallowing in it - get moving and start having conversations.” Sherman thinks there is a deeper issue. “These people have a political and moral objection to the system, and they aren’t seeking individual absolution. It’s incorrect to say that they are rich young people who feel bad and want to give something back to society. Rather, they are redefining what it means to act in their own self-interest.”
This type of self-interest is difficult to comprehend in a society where money is the only symbol of status, well-being and security. “Parents want security for their children, and it’s hard for wealthy people to realize that maybe they have enough money,” says Sherman. The clash arises from different concepts of security. It’s hard for Curtis’ family to understand her desire to part with an entire inheritance. But for Curtis and her peers, accumulating money doesn’t necessarily lead to a better life. On the contrary, it represents an abyss of inequality, social conflict, insecurity and climate crisis. “We are isolating ourselves from a sense of solidarity with the people of the world. And that separation is ultimately unhealthy for us,” Curtis says.