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Downward Mobility: Why So Many Kids from Wealthy Families Earn Less Than Their Parents

Photo of author, Will Carter, JD.
Will Carter, JD
Senior Advisor

One of the highest priorities for many of my clients is helping their children move into financially secure careers.

To some, this may seem a wasted worry. Research clearly documents that children with high income parents are three times as likely to go to college, and twice as likely as children of lower income parents to reach top tier incomes early in their careers.

But that same research also demonstrates that many children of wealthy parents end up earning far less than their parents.

One factor contributing to this latter tendency is the natural impulse of parents to want to help out their children. I have observed that in wealthy families this impulse can unwittingly nurture a soft type of entitlement -- not an in-your-face attitude of privilege, but rather ignorant naïveté. Parents are sometimes so focused on helping their kids get started in life (cell phones, cars, college) that their children grow up insulated not only from what it really costs to live a good life, but also from the real world's expectation that they create value for others in order to earn enough to pay for that life.

An essay in The Atlantic, however, suggests that there is another, more laudable, dynamic contributing to the tendency of some children from financially secure families to pursue lower paying careers. The essay starts with quotes from one of America’s founding fathers, John Adams. Adams once famously wrote (I'm paraphrasing here) that he was a revolutionary so his children could study nation-building professions like business, so his grandchildren could study arts, music, and poetry. The Atlantic essay then goes on to cite research documenting the fact that kids from lower income households are more likely to pursue "practical" majors, and that doctors and surgeons are more likely to come from families with lower incomes than musicians and artists.

Ultimately, the challenge for parents is to create conditions for their adolescent and young adult children that nurture their ability to pursue meaningful careers without instilling financial naïveté along the way. Knowing what the research shows, and what one of our founding fathers dreamed for, is a good place to start.

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