Wow, it suddenly seems a bit of a drudge to be rich. Shouldn’t being a child of wealth be simple, hedonistic fun? If it isn’t, and we cannot follow their ridiculous exploits in speedboats and on reality shows about them being rich and idiotic, then bitch about them and their vacuous, shallow lives, then how do we take the edge off our own sad, bill-paying existences? Rich people need to play-act their financial largesse, so we can hate them for it. It’s an accepted part of our envy ecosystem.
Well, apparently not if you’re Sting, whose kids have been told they have to work for their own money. Chelsea Clinton also is holding forth on how little money means to her: She would rather be seen in sackcloth rather than Phoebe Philo, thank you very much. The message of all this Chanel belt-tightening is that the rich are not just like you and me. The wealthy want to be seen as even more parsimonious, to offset the incriminating millions in their bank accounts. Hail the “Just Like You” brigade. Just Like Yous are really just regular people, they insist, and yet they are nothing like you and me, because they are extremely wealthy.
At the weekend, Sting revealed that his great wealth and success was “a great shadow over them—so it’s no picnic at all being my child. I discuss that with them; it’s tough for them.”
The former Police frontman has told his brood “there won’t be much money left because we are spending it! We have a lot of commitments. What comes in we spend, and there isn’t much left. I certainly don’t want to leave them trust funds that are albatrosses ’round their necks.”
A trust fund, likened to an albatross around your neck? What a quaint idea that only the very rich could ever entertain. Note to Sting: An “albatross” in this context is more like “tens of thousands of dollars of student loan debt.”
And what are he and wife Trudie Styler spending it on? Apart from a staff and lawyers? And if they are buying Lear jets and skyscrapers, doesn’t that invalidate the notion of wealth being a “shadow” of any kind?
No matter. He has more to say. “They have to work,” says Sting of his children. “[They] know that and they rarely ask me for anything, which I really respect and appreciate. Obviously, if they were in trouble I would help them, but I’ve never really had to do that. They have this work ethic that makes them want to succeed on their own merit. People make assumptions that they were born with a silver spoon in their mouth, but they have not been given a lot.”
What Sting glides over is that, admirable as the way he bought them up is, the very fact of having money is the vital, secure cushion his children are working from. The key sentence is, “Obviously if they were in trouble I would help them…” The knowledge and security flowing from having a parent that financially solvent is golden. It is a character-forming cherry on top that his children have their father and mother’s formidable work ethic on top of that material security.
Indeed, Sting’s daughter Mickey Sumner, who seems charming, witty, and modest, echoed much of what her father said when I interviewed her last year. She told me: “We were brought up to be polite to people, thank God—I think that’s so important. My parents instilled in us the importance of work. They didn’t grow up with wealth, they worked for everything they had. My dad to this day talks about how important work is. He takes so much pleasure from it and mum does too. If I’m not working I’m not happy.”
This is very heartening, but can it be that rich, privileged kids are now gainfully and purposefully employed, rather than swanning about living off the fat of their parents’ bank accounts, or even their names? Chelsea Clinton, for one, told Britain’s Daily Telegraph: “I was curious if I could care about [money] on some fundamental level, and I couldn’t. That wasn’t the metric of success I wanted in my life.” She added: “I will just always work harder [than anybody else] and hopefully perform better. And hopefully, over time, I pre-empt and erase whatever expectations people have of me not having a good work ethic, or not being smart, or not being motivated.”
The only person who doesn’t care about money “on some fundamental level” is someone who has so much it that they fundamentally don’t have to worry about ready access to it.
The added irony of her words is that nobody would have doubted that Chelsea Clinton worked hard or seemed committed to whatever occupation she was involved in, until a few days ago, when it was revealed she was paid $600,000 by NBC for effectively contributing nine reports as a correspondent.
There is nothing wrong with that sum, but would she have been paid it—indeed, would she have been employed to do what she was employed to do—had she not been named Chelsea Clinton? However strong her work ethic is, her name will always open doors and leverage salaries way above “unknown” others.
Clearly, money—having it, what it confers, what it means—is different when you have lots of it. Chelsea’s mother, Hillary Clinton, herself made the unconvincing case that she and Bill were once “dead broke,” which has now mutated to “not truly well off.”
As venerable as Chelsea Clinton’s good works are, she surely feels so able to give herself over to philanthropy because she is so well off. It’s not that money doesn’t matter to her but that she and her husband are wealthy, and therefore do not need to think or worry about money like most people. Just Like You’s are not laissez-faire about wealth because they have so much and spend so much; they simply bankroll themselves to secure the freedom to find true professional or vocational fulfillment.
Sting and the Clintons’ retreat from their money is mirrored by Bill Gates, who in March said his children would not inherit enough money to become billionaires: “Nope, they won’t have anything like that. They need to have a sense that their own work is meaningful and important.”
What the Just Like You cannot be seen to be is rich without purpose or depth: Sting and the Gateses’ admirable approach is based on a reproach of their own wealth and responsibility toward others. On Downton Abbey, set in an era when the rich really were indolent and reeking of entitlement and snobbery, the venerable wealthy characters very visibly work, rather than simply bellowing at the below-stairs staff to do everything. But the reality—whether it be the Clintons, the Gateses, or Downton Abbey—is that all the mechanisms of power and privilege operate efficiently offstage to keep the wealthy wealthy. The Just Like You has no intention of living as earthily as their words might imply.
Even on the mesmerizing British reality show Made in Chelsea, which revels in the consumption-addled, party-dependent, decadent behavior of its posh British 20-something cast, the bickering Sloanes are shown to have day jobs.
Only one of the group, Mark-Francis Vandelli Orlov-Romanovsky, seems to exist solely to delight in his money as a full-time occupation. He buys fancy cars, he looks askance at everyday anything. His absolute snobbery is bizarrely refreshing, while the Just Like You's around him try to seem as “normal” as possible. Mark-Francis is rich, he sneers, he consumes. He does not see his wealth and status as subsidiary, he holds both shamelessly close. In fact, he runs a jewelry business and believes in teaching young people about the beauty of art. He’s even been on a bus.
The more self-conscious Just Like Yous, in retreat from being seen as cosseted big-spenders, would cross the street to avoid Mark-Francis, then when no one was listening ask him quietly who tailors his suits—and whisper that they look forward to seeing him in Capri later in the summer.