Growing up comfortable makes billionaires boring
Early in Warren Buffett’s life, his father failed to get hired at the family grocery store during the Great Depression. Without a job, and without any money after a run on the banks, the family of four ran up a tab of grocery bills at the store to put food on the table, and even then, his mother sometimes skipped meals. Leila Buffett, beset by stress and with a mind likely impacted by linotype fumes she inhaled as a child, would often berate her two small children.
From this nadir, the family gradually achieved more secure financial footing. His father started a stock brokerage and eventually went on to become a four-term congressman. Young Warren started showing an aptitude for numbers. He became obsessed with timing everything, calculating odds, even tallying the frequency of the letters that appeared in the bible most frequently, according to The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life. By age 15 he managed to earn thousands working his local paper route. The rest, as they say, is history.
On Friday, the legendary investor, 87, was surpassed in wealth by 34-year-old Mark Zuckerberg. The gap was closed in part by Facebook’s surging stock up 15 percent this year so far and in part by Buffett’s large charitable cash outflows. Today, the three richest people in the world, Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates and Zuckerberg, have all made their fortunes in tech.
Compared to Buffett and many of his contemporaries, Zuckerberg’s childhood was more banal. He grew up in Dobbs Ferry, a small middle-class suburb of New York, the son of a dentist and a psychiatrist. He started using his father’s computer at a young age, and showed an early facility for programming, before graduating from an elite prep school.
Zuckerberg’s story is typical of the slate of newly minted technology billionaires in the ranks of the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. And there are a lot of them. With 64 technology businessmen and women on Bloomberg’s list, which tracks the world’s 500 richest people, the industry has produced more billionaires than any other (unless you count inheritances — there’s a lot of inherited wealth on the list, too). This year alone, tech has created 11 new billionaires.
But there’s something missing from the foundational stories of this new group of self-made men (yes, they’re mostly men). Where earlier generations’ formative experiences revolved around paper routes and pathos, today’s prototypical founding story involves an upper-middle-class childhood, early access to a computer, and an elite education — even if that education was abandoned. Before he famously walked out of Harvard University, Zuckerberg created an instant messaging system for his dad’s dental practice at age 12. At 15, Twitter’s Jack Dorsey was dazzling his bosses during a programming internship. And Uber’s Travis Kalanick was writing code by middle school.
The self-made man has always played a profound role in the American imagination. Horatio Alger wrote stories of plucky, lower-class strivers who made their way in the world by dint of honesty and hard work. Hollywood has fetishized the underdog since movies were invented. And for years, the business world offered real stories too.
But the modern rise of the Harvard dropout (or New York University in Dorsey’s case, or UCLA in Kalanick’s case), complicates that story. Today’s founders are long on brilliance, but short on hardship. It’s difficult, after all, to become a computer prodigy without a computer. That dollop of privilege speaks to a larger trend in the American economy: For millions of low-income people, it’s getting harder to build something from nothing. In order to drop out of Harvard, first you have to get in.
In some ways, it’s great to live in the age of the nerd. And it’s tough to mourn the decline of Wall Street-style corporate machismo. But a poor kid growing up today may find it much harder to emulate the life path of someone like Zuckerberg, who coded an instant messaging system before hitting puberty, than that of even Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, who grew up in Brooklyn housing projects and at one point served concessions at Yankee Stadium to earn extra money.
That so many of today’s new billionaires mostly come from comfortable backgrounds is emblematic of a broader concentrating of wealth in the U.S. According to recent Federal Reserve data, the median family’s net worth had not recovered its pre-recession value by 2016, while the top 10 percent gained double digits since 2007.
Of course, you can still find evidence of rough patches and plenty of hard work in the early childhoods of today’s wealthiest tech luminaries. Elon Musk, 47, an immigrant from South Africa, came from wealth, but was bullied as a kid before moving to Canada alone at just 17, where he enrolled in Queens University and transferred to the University of Pennsylvania, before eventually dropping out of a Stanford University doctoral program. Jeff Bezos, 54, was born when his mother was 16 years old, and was adopted by her second husband, a Cuban immigrant and an engineer. And Sergey Brin, 44, came to the U.S. as a 6-year-old, when his parents traded the anti-Semitic backdrop of Moscow academia for a new life in the U.S.
But even these founders, who all had at least one parent with a science background, stand in contrast to an earlier era. According to the Bloomberg Billionaire Index, the second-oldest self-made American billionaire is Amway’s Richard DeVos, born in 1926. DeVos was a boy when his father lost his job as an electrician during the Great Depression, and the family moved in with his grandparents. He remembered stuffing a baseball with fabric and tying it together because he and his friends couldn’t afford a new one. As a sophomore, he was labeled “not college material,” sent to trade school, and had to work to pay his way back into the local Christian high school.
This is not a lamentation of the comfortable childhoods of corporate leaders. In some ways, the American myth of the up-from-nothing elite was always mostly imagined. The likelihood that a child today will rise from the lowest to the highest quintile of earnings, is less than 10 percent. That’s low compared to other rich countries, but it’s not much changed since the 1970s.
The American dream has always been a story we told ourselves, bolstered by the hardscrabble tales of men who rose from nothing to become magnates. Today, Zuckerberg is a moral leader — a family man, and a donor to noble causes. But those looking to follow in his footsteps will cast an eye back to his early days: To the comfortable Westchester upbringing, the fencing club captainship at an elite prep school, the insouciant Harvard days, and to Facemash. American youth may aspire to climb the same ladder. They’re likely to find it’s missing some rungs.