Claire, 26, finished her master’s degree in public health earlier this year and just started working for a nonprofit in Washington, D.C. It doesn’t pay much, but for Claire, that doesn’t matter — she has a trust fund that covers all her expenses (including a nice apartment that she definitely couldn’t afford otherwise). She has always tried to play down her family’s wealth, but now, she wants to make sure that her new colleagues don’t find out about it. People have always assumed that her parents’ money opened doors for her, and she doesn’t want them to think that’s the case for this job (which her parents had nothing to do with). She feels weird being secretive, though — she knows people will wonder how she can afford her place, and is hesitant to have anyone over. To what degree should she hide her financial status?
Over the years, I’ve worked with several people from fancy families, and I know I’m not the only one who speculated — and grumbled — about how much their powerful parents helped get their foot in the door. At one of my jobs, we had “VIP” interns (offspring of powerful people, to be treated with kid gloves) as well as an assistant who frequently swanned into the office dressed in head-to-toe Chanel. They were friendly, capable people who did their jobs, but the first impression they made was one of privilege.
Money that falls into people’s laps tends to make us all uneasy, as a rule. “The belief that reward should be commensurate with effort makes society wary of the wealth that inheritors receive without any effort on their own part,” writes professor Eric Schoenberg, who studied the psychology of inheritance at Columbia Business School. While standard economic theory says that we all want the highest rewards for the least amount of labor, Schoenberg argues that heirs create an exception, and inhabit a weird gray area. “The happiest inheritors have focused on increasing their individual contribution to society,” he observes. In other words, having money is nice, but most people want to feel like they’ve done something to deserve it, besides be born.
Money isn’t the only thing that motivates us to work, of course; we all want to make an impact and be appreciated for it. A job well done is a source of pride, and in that sense, Claire, you’re not so different from your colleagues. And by keeping your family situation under wraps, you may have a better chance to prove that.
Still, your co-workers are probably going to catch wind of your circumstances sooner or later, if they haven’t already — humans have sensitive antennae for money, even when it’s concealed behind responsible bag lunches and humble outfits. And what then? If your first impression is that of competence and conscientiousness, I doubt they’ll care. They’ll shrug, wonder vaguely what your apartment cost and what they’d buy with that amount, and then go back to sending you emails about tomorrow’s meeting. They’re busy. Sure, you might want to work a little harder to confirm your work ethic, but showing up early and extra prepared is a small price to pay for respect (and not a bad idea for a new employee, anyway).
Meanwhile, it’s worth examining why you’re so preoccupied by this fear of being “found out” in the first place. What are you really worried about? Perhaps you’re the one who’s anxious about relating to your co-workers, not the other way around. You might be nervous about befriending people from different backgrounds, in general. Research shows that people are more likely to choose their friends from within their own socioeconomic pool, and even perceive cross-class interactions as awkward. However, that same research has shown that these barriers aren’t very strong. In one study, people from different socioeconomic classes were paired up, assigned to list the three most important characteristics that they shared, and then asked to write a short essay describing their similarities based on those characteristics. The tactic worked: After completing the exercise, the pairs displayed the same levels of engagement as they previously had with those from their own socioeconomic class.
I’m not saying that you should write essays about your co-workers, but focusing on your differences (and how you’ll hide them) isn’t the best use of your time. It would be a lot easier, and more fun, to put your energy toward exploring what you have in common instead of stressing out about this double life you’re so intent on leading. Remember: Everyone else in your office has personal stuff that they leave at home every day, too. They might not be secret billionaires, but they definitely have weird, complicated, messy issues, of which you see only one dimension.
Your “me vs. them” mind-set isn’t just a lonely one — it could be another product of your background. Research has found that people with more money are less empathetic, and more likely to act on their individual interests; they’re not as adept at reading facial expressions, for instance (the explanation is that they don’t have to be, because they aren’t dependent on others for their well-being). In one study, participants who were told to think about how much better off they were compared to others took more candy from a jar than those had been told to think about their financial status more generally (even though both groups were told that the leftover candy would go to children!). The takeaway: Self-awareness and gratitude are positive attributes, but dwelling on your situation only isolates you further.
As for your guilt: It’s normal, and not necessarily bad. As Schoenberg mentioned, people are troubled by unequal outcomes if they result from “unfair” circumstances — like rich parents — even when they are the benefactors (this is also known as “equity theory”). In studies where participants were “overpaid” for a task, they proceeded to increase the quality and quantity of their work to compensate for it. When you extend this logic to inherited money, it puts you in quite a bind, as no amount of labor will make you “deserve” what you’ve received, technically. But your inclination to balance your good fortune with hard work is a powerful urge to harness. While pursuing a career out of a desire for personal fulfillment instead of a need to house and clothe yourself is a luxury, it doesn’t change the quality of our output, the value of what you accomplish, or the enjoyment you get from doing so — and chances are, your co-workers won’t notice the difference, either.