Skip to main content

By Harry S. Margolis

In the Myth of the Silver Spoon: Navigating Family Wealth & Creating an Impactful Life, Kristin Keffeler describes the challenges faced by many children and grandchildren of wealth, who she calls “rising gen,” and provides tools they, their parents and their advisors can use to help the build fulfilling lives.

Clearing Out the “Clutter”

The first half of the book is devoted to clearing out “clutter” that can get in the way of progressing in life, the second half to concepts of positive psychology for moving forward. Readers may well find the tools useful whether or not they themselves come from wealth or have built wealth and are concerned about its effect on their progeny. We all have “clutter” and obstacles to our development. It’s just that those faced by scions of wealth are somewhat different.

Keffeler, who is an advisor and certified professional coach with a multi-family office in Denver, outlines common “clutter” stories she has seen among her clients. Many compare themselves unfavorably to their parents or grandparents who have created great wealth and conclude that they do not have similar intelligence, creativity or drive. Others fall back on their wealth and do not push through difficult times at school or work, sometimes with the encouragement of family members who question why they need to endure the situation. She tells the story of one young woman whose plan to start a business was undermined when her parents invited her on a long-term sailing adventure. They wanted her company; she didn’t start the business.

Many of these young people find themselves entering their 30s with a slim work record while their less wealthy peers have pushed through and are beginning to achieve some professional and financial success in which they can take pride on having created on their own. The children of wealth have missed the opportunity during their 20s to develop “identity capital – the individual collection of resources and experiences that each of us gathers over time and guides who we are and what we bring to our adult journey.” Work, of course, also has other benefits including providing a social milieu and a sense of self-worth and achievement, since a third party is validating these by paying a salary.

Interactions with peers also can be problematic in a number of ways. For some, they begin to question whether their “friends” like them for themselves or because of the great vacation homes where they get to hang out or because the wealthy friend may pick up the tab when going out for dinner or drinks. Others lead something of a double life, not telling their friends about their wealth so they can fit in. As a result, they feel alienated and dishonest. Keffeler tells the story of another young woman artist whose friends are all scraping by. Can she tell them about her wealth? She’s not even sure if she should take a job at a coffee bar like her friends since that might take the job away from someone else who really needs it.

Another young woman went away to college in part to get away from her family’s shadow. But when she brought her new boyfriend to their ski lodge on vacation, he was completely weirded out and left early, breaking off their relationship.

Keffeler provides a series of questions she encourages rising gen members to work through around the themes of money, identity relationship, and contribution clutter. By recognizing the scripts they tell themselves, they can change them and move forward. For example, “What are the most important aspects of myself that I want people to know and experience? How often do I feel like people see for that versus my last name or my financial situation? In what situations have I felt like people do see me as that?”

Self Actualization

After clearing out the clutter, Keffeler moves on to what she calls the “science of human thriving.” She describes the work of Abraham Maslow on self-actualization and of Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology. But much of her conclusions stem from her own research interviewing rising gen members who have successfully built fulfilling and impactful lives. She found they share four common characteristics -- a growth mindset, grit, close positive relationships, and foundational character strengths – all of which lead to “learned mastery” and agency over one’s own life. She quotes Warren Buffet’s son, Peter, on the need for such agency: “at the individual level, our development is aimed at the self-respect that can only come from earning our own rewards. Our goal is the peace of mind that derives from choosing our own lives, pursing the destiny that feels truly like our own.”

Based on the research of others, including Carol Dweck on a growth mindset and Angela Duckworth on grit, Keffeler describes how we may cultivate these characteristics. In some cases, it’s as simple as recognizing the reality. For instance, we may have always thought that our abilities were fixed. We’re good or bad at math, good or bad at foreign languages, good or bad at public speaking. It’s true that these abilities may come more easily to some than to others. But it’s also true that we can all learn how to do just about anything and the more we learn, the stronger our foundation will be for learning more. Further, to the extent anything is difficult for us, pushing through the challenge will help us develop the grit which is so important to success.

Raising Resilient Children

Keffeler closes the book with advice to both parents and to trusted advisors. Parents with wealth, whether inherited or that they created, often need to be more intentional in their child raising than non-wealthy parents. It can be too easy to use their wealth and influence to flatten out the bumps and disappointments everyone faces in life. Yet overcoming them on our own without outside assistance can help develop the resilience and confidence in our own abilities that may be undermined by too much assistance.

She describes how the parents of a high schooler made their daughter pay part of the cost of a car they bought for her. In order to earn the money, she got an after-school job, one she kept through the rest of high school even after she had paid her contribution to the cost of the car. As a result, she had her own spending money and the experience of being valued for her work. Less wealthy parents do not have to think this through since their children can only afford a car through their own labor.

Keffeler also advises focusing on process rather than results. Always an A student, she tells the story of when she brought home her first C in an advanced math class. Instead of bemoaning the lower-than-usual grade, her mother took her out for ice cream to celebrate the effort she had put into taking on the challenging class. She says this taught her that taking on the challenge was what was important, not the result.

For those working with wealthy families, Keffeler suggests a move from what she calls wealth 2.0 to 3.0. Wealth 2.0 saw the development of family offices and other advisors to support wealthy families. But it often came with a negative vibe, the often-heard line “from shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves” in three generations, that without the protection of the advisors, the grandchildren of wealth creators are likely to squander whatever their grandparents created. Keffeler asserts that there’s little truth to this pattern and that wealth advisors need to be more positive. Instead of asking their clients what fears keep them up at night, ask “What strengths do you see in your family (or children) that will help you meet adversity in the future.”

What Does a Successful Rising Gen Life Look Like?

This book should very useful for rising gen members, their families and their advisors. But I did find two things missing. While the author conducted deep interviews with successful rising gen subjects and their stories and those of others provide welcome color, I was left wondering what a fulfilling and impactful life looks like for scions of wealth. Did they become schoolteachers, corporate lawyers, foundation leaders, or artists? While no one life path is right for anyone else, I would have preferred understanding better the potential outcomes of following the tools provided in the book. Perhaps that can be Keffeler’s next book.

My other issue with the book has to do with context. Keffeler does acknowledge at the outset that the reader may wonder why anyone cares about the rich since they have so much more than everyone else. She describes one of the scripts standing in her clients’ way as “No one wants to hear the problems of a rich kid.” She also acknowledges our mixed feelings about the wealthy, often respecting those who are successful in business while looking down own those who became wealthy through the “birth lottery.” And I appreciate that the fact that someone is wealthy doesn’t mean that we should not be sympathetic to their challenges or that they don’t have just as much a right as anyone else to a fulfilling life. Yet, one of the reasons we’ve seen a growth in the wealth advisory business is that there’s so much more wealth in the United States and around the world than there was a generation ago.

According to Keffeler, there are 6.3 million American families with wealth of $5 to $30 million in investible assets (a big range) and 73,000 ultrawealthy families with more than $30 million. The Gini index, a common measure of inequality in income, has grown in the United States from .43 in 1990 to .49 in 2021. And that measures income rather than wealth, the latter of which is more skewed to the few in part because you need excess income to be able to develop wealth. At that same time that inequality has been growing, a campaign against the “death” tax has increased the threshold for federal estate taxation from $600,000 in 1997 to $13 million ($26 million for a married couple) in 2023. As a result, some rising gen members have joined Resource Generation, “a multiracial membership community of young people with wealth and/or class privilege committed to the equitable distribution of wealth, land, and power.” (You can check out their quiz on “class privilege” here: https://resourcegeneration.org/start-your-journey/quiz/.) But, of course, discussing these issues would be a totally different book.

About the reviewer: Harry Margolis

Harry S. Margolis practices elder law, estate and special needs planning at Margolis Bloom & D’Agostino in Boston and Wellesley, Massachusetts, and is the founder of ElderLawAnswers.com. He is author of The Baby Boomers Guide to Trusts: Your All-Purpose Estate Planning Tool and answers consumer questions about estate planning issues for MarketWatch and at www.AskHarry.info. Feel free to post your estate planning questions there.