Aspire | Action | Acquire
Aspire | Action | Acquire

Is wealth a heritable trait?

In a study of thirty centi-millionaires in the late-1980s, journalist and author Vance Packard identified that very few of the Forbes 400 who inherited their wealth had little to do with the enterprise on which their wealth was founded. Family names mentioned by Packard were du Pont, Ford, Heinz, Mellon and Rockefeller. Carnegie, Chrysler, Guggenheim, McCormick, and Biddle, ‘whose names symbolize American enterprise’ were absent altogether[1].

The demise of wealth is not unique to America’s gilded era families. Gone too are the Anglo-Dutch “knickerbocker” families whose hereditary family wealth dated back to the seventeenth century. Their very social descendants, including the Stuyvesants, Van Cortlandts, Van Rensselaers, De Lanceys, and Morrises, were amongst those invited to an annual gala ball organised by “Mrs Astor”. Caroline Astor (nee Schermerhorn) brought social standing to a family whose patriarch made his initial fortune from trading animal furs to Europe.

One thing, other than wealth, that the founders of the Astor and Vanderbilt dynasties had in common, was that they had low expectations of their sons despite involving them in their respective businesses. For Cornelius Vanderbilt’s son, William Henry, his inherited wealth was an onerous burden, and one he split between his children; which was a departure of that era to bequeath one’s wealth to a single child, commonly male. Low expectations was also a feature of the relationship between Henry Ford and his son Edsel, who predeceased his father.  

To put the challenges faced for inheriting the drive of a first-generation wealth creator into perspective, Lee Iacocca made several observations of Henry Ford II in his autobiography.   Henry Ford II, the grandson of the Ford Motor Company founder, was propelled into the company’s leadership after the early passing of his father. Lee Iacocca theorized that rich kids go through life wondering if they would have become anything without an inheritance. They grow up never having to fight for anything in their life.[2] This phenomenon is seen to pass to successive generations once divorced from their respective family businesses.

William Kissam (Willie, 1878-1944) Vanderbilt II, a great grandson of the Commodore, insisted that his inherited wealth left him nothing definite to seek or strive for.[3] The late Laura Rockefeller (d. 2015), a great granddaughter of J D Rockefeller, became a licensed psychiatric social worker and philanthropist. For much of her early life, she is quoted for saying, “the deepest conflict has been between a desire to disappear, become anonymous, invisible to run away, and a wish to be known, recognized, appreciated.”[4]

Nelson Aldrich, Jnr., who carved out careers in education and journalism, wrote of successive generations of wealth losing their entrepreneurial imagination through lack of hunger and forced distance from the vulgarity of the market; which in turn has led to many pursuing social engagement through philanthropy[5]. Aldrich’s great-grandfather was a Gilded Age senator and one of the architects of the Federal Reserve.

In his book Old Money, Nelson Aldrich’s identifies three obstacles inheritors of wealth confront. Beneficiaries of great wealth are robbed of the entrepreneurial values “to overthrow the fateful momentum of the past; to make things new, including the self; to be solely responsible for oneself.”[6] The issue identified here is that ultra-wealth creators, by merit of their financial legacy, risk conferring “gatherer” status on future generations. 

Showing great foresight, but leaving a dynastic estate nonetheless, Walmart co-founder Sam Walton wrote that his descendants would not become members of the idle rich.[7] In stark contrast, Paris Hilton, the great-granddaughter of Conrad Hilton, is testimony to the aspirational ability of a fourth-generation descendant divorced from family’s founding fortune.


[1] Vance Packard, The Ultra Rich: How Much is too Much (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1989), 242.

[2] Lee Iacocca, Iacocca: An Autobiography (Toronto: Bantam Books, 1988), 104.

[3] Arthur T. Vanderbilt, Fortune’s Children: The Fall of the House of Vanderbilt (New York: Morrow, 2013), 220.

[4] Vance Packard, The Ultra Rich: How Much is too Much (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1989), 81-83.

[5] Nelson W. Aldrich, Old Money: The Mythology of America’s Upper Class (New York: Distributed by Random House, 1988), 91-92, 111.

[6] Nelson W. Aldrich, Old Money: The Mythology of America’s Upper Class (New York: Distributed by Random House, 1988), 141.

[7] Sam Walton, and John Huey, Sam Walton Made in America: My Story, (New York: Bantam Books, 1992), 98.