How the Wealthy are Disadvantaged

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Some things only money can buy — better access to education, health care, and security, not to mention iPhones, BMWs and exotic vacations.

However there is one vitally important thing that money cannot buy. There is mounting science of how the wealthy are disadvantaged in one area that may mean more to them than anything else — the fundamentals of their children’s health.

An Economist cover story claimed that to be successful in America’s new “meritocracy,” one must increasingly come from the elite. Not long after, The New York Times’ posted an article on exhausted super kids, and TIME magazine covered the shocking rise of the college mental health crisis in the pressure to be perfect. One thing all of these stories missed is that a disproportionate number of emotional, behavioural, and mental health problems are occurring in children of the upper class and upper middle class.

That is, wealth is now a risk factor.

Mental Health Symptoms:

In studies of upper class and upper middle class high school students across America, serious levels of depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, loneliness, and somatic (physical) symptoms have been shown to occur at more than twice the rate in comparison to national averages.

Narcissistic behaviours:

A recent meta-analysis study from the University of Michigan examined 85 samples of American College students. They concluded that: “narcissistic exhibitionism scores among affluent boys at elite private schools were almost twice the average scores of a more diverse sample.”

Upper class and upper middle class girls are more at risk:

Researchers found that links between peer admiration and external attractiveness (beauty) were almost twice as strong among affluent girls as compared to boys of all SES and girls of lower SES. Wealthy girls also were more likely to show “externalizing behaviors” of emotional upset such as acting out, rule-breaking, delinquency, and alcohol and drug use.

Substance use, abuse, and dependence problems:

A Columbia University study looked at three indicators of family socio-economic status (SES) — income, wealth, and parental education. Their findings corroborated at least four previous studies (I guess it was hard to believe) that young adults with the highest family background SES were most prone to alcohol use, frequent episodic binge drinking, and marijuana use.

Crime, delinquency, and acting out:

When compared to low-income urban youth, affluent, suburban students were found to display high maladjustment including behaviours such as lying, cheating, theft (from parents and peers), destruction of property, and violence toward others. The main differentiating factor between low SES and high SES was in their protective factors such as parental, school, and community involvement, and access to therapists and healthy interventions allowing the high SES youth to change their trajectory away from a downward spiral.

And is getting worse…

Ask any private school or liberal arts college teacher, professor, or administrator and they may all tell you that these problems are all getting worse. In fact the same Columbia University study concluded that “The evidence suggests that the privileged young are much more vulnerable today than in previous generations.”

Now all of this begs the question — why?

Like much in life, the factors are complex but here are a few reasons.

A pressured lifestyle.

Many youth are pressured: The CASA’s (2012) survey established that “[t]he number one source of stress for teens is academic pressure, including pressure to do well in school and to get into college,” and among college students, reducing stress was the most common reason offered for drinking, drug use, and smoking.”

But, the wealthy have the resources — time and money to manifest this pressure into an unhealthy lifestyle of schedules, instructions, tutoring, coaching, and hovering over their children’s performance placing added pressure on them. These over-parenting behaviours manifest themselves in an over-pressured lifestyle.

A pressured mind.

A pressured lifestyle is only part of the cause, the other part comes from the very core of the environment these children grow up in. An environment that directly or indirectly sends them the message that what you do on the outside is of utmost importance, perhaps even more important than who you are on the inside.

In the last 40 years there has been a fundamental shift in life values. In 1967, almost 90 per cent of college freshmen rated “developing a meaningful philosophy of life” as an essential life goal. In 2004, only 42 per cent of freshmen agreed with them. What replaced “developing a meaningful philosophy in life?” Ranking for “being well-off financially” and “attaining prestigious jobs” rose equivalently in importance over that same time frame.

The research shows that among the upper class and upper middle class, the first signs of problems emerge when these youth are around 12-13. This age is a developmental marker for when children start to ask themselves questions of meaning, identity, and purpose.

Tragically in the fast paced, performance-oriented, and hyper-competitive environments many of these children are growing up in, the answers to these life questions all seem to point to external accomplishment at the expense of internal meaning or purpose.

So if you are thinking “what’s wrong with a little substance use, anxiety or narcissism as a teen? Once my kid gets in to their Ivy League and lands a prestigious job, all will be well.”

Think again. Childhood sets the stage for life.

Personal, emotional, behavioural, and mental health issues in childhood and adolescence bring elevated risk for recurrent problems later in life. Childhood lays the foundation for all aspects of adult life. We know that an unhappy childhood is a risk factor for numerous psychological issues — difficulty with relationships, self-insight, and coping with stress — just to name a few. An unhappy childhood also predisposes individuals to physical health issues such as heart disease, inflammatory conditions, and accelerated cell aging.

The irony is great and tragic.

Like all parents, wealthy parents just want “the best” for their kids. However, regardless of what our society says, the best doesn’t always mean more. Instead of having more, children of wealth end up with less.

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