If I’ve learned anything this year, it’s that money can’t buy happiness. In the early months of quarantine, I—like many others, I imagine—used retail therapy as a reliable endorphin booster. I’d research, scroll, spend, and wait for the magical USPS delivery man to leave that wonderful cardboard box at my door. Then I’d tear open the package just to find that the weird Depop find, or unpleasantly fragrant candles, or Fleabag coloring book within the box did little to soothe the insatiable unhappiness lingering over me.
Clearly, money isn’t the cure for pandemic-related despair. But, as French playwright Françoise Sagan aptly put it, “I’d rather cry in a Ferrari than on a bus.”
That’s how I imagine Gen Z’s recent obsession with wealth came to be. Specifically, old money. We got tired of our boring, average, unglamorous lives and began to fantasize about a utopian world. As a result, my Letterboxd is inundated with reviews of Pride and Prejudice. I keep coming across Spotify playlists titled “Living Like the Kennedys” and “Old Money Life,” which feature songs like “Norman fucking Rockwell” and “Super Rich Kids.” I hear Lana Del Rey crooning about wealthy old men every time I open TikTok. The Tik Toks themselves are dedicated to the suddenly trendy “old money aesthetic.” It’s as if the algorithm knows I have nothing better to do than daydream about living with Mr. Darcy in Pemberley.
I don’t blame the internet; this old money aesthetic is dream-worthy. The aesthetic usually centers on a multimillion-dollar mansion overlooking grounds populated with manicured flowers and bubbling fountains; elegant rooms decked in Baroque-style paintings and shimmering gold embellishments; ritzy folk wearing tennis whites and sports jackets, frolicking in clay tennis courts and lavish country clubs. In place of homecoming, young socialites flock to debutante balls at the Waldorf-Astoria and galas at the Ritz-Carlton. Who funds these activities? Rich husbands born into American dynasties (see: Kennedy, Vanderbilt, Rockefeller…). Subscribers to the old money aesthetic fantasize about a hedge-enclosed world, where money is endless and glamour never ceases; a world where life is easy.
However, the obsession with old money uplifts an oppressive world. The old money bubble excludes people of color, members of lower socioeconomic class, and even “new money.” Underneath a TikTok by @samalicious1 captioned “I want the old money life so bad omg,” one commenter said, “ugh I wish but I’m black.” After all, in the nineteenth century when names like Rockefeller and Vanderbilt rose to prominence, excessive wealth wasn’t remotely attainable for people of color. Racism has fueled the old money world and allowed families to profit off their racial and socioeconomic privilege; the Koch family, for example, was caught stealing oil from Native American reservations in 1988. According to the blog OurFuture (the project of a national network of grassroots groups which aims to “elevate fresh voices from the front lines of change”), the Koch family’s actions reduced or eliminated the incomes of many reservation residents. When evidence emerged proving the theft, the Koch brothers evaded punishment by paying an undisclosed amount to settle the case. Clearly, old money beneficiaries profit off marginalized Americans—so why are we glorifying them?
For Gen Z, idealizing old money is hypocritical. We’re activists, challengers of the norm, advocates. We fueled Black Lives Matter activism last summer, we voted Trump out of office, and we took to social media to share infographics on every topic under the sun. We take care not to give money to large corporations, spending at thrift stores and on Depop instead. Insider reported that Gen Z and our focus on sustainability killed fast fashion giant Forever 21; according to a First Insight report, Gen Z is more committed to sustainability and environmental protection than any other generation. Young people view capitalism more negatively than other generations, too, and 57% of Gen-Z survey respondents identified socialism as a means to ensure basic services to all marginalized people. Clearly, most of us are in agreement: unequal wealth distribution is bad, economic equality is good. Racism and exclusivity are bad, equity and inclusivity are good.
And yet, we wish we could go to Jay Gatsby’s rich-white-people-only parties. We wish we belonged to the top one percent and lived in the mansions of our TikTok dreams, with housekeepers to clean up after us and gardeners to keep our hedges manicured. I know I do! I’m tired of going home to the same boring apartment, where paint is chipping off the walls and appliances are always breaking and there’s nobody to clean up after me or take me to the country club for an afternoon tennis match. And while half of me relishes in the comforts of escapism, the other half of me is aware that idealizing this wealthy sector of America is dangerous. By dreaming of belonging to that exclusive, privileged, greedy world, we’re justifying it. And if we want to make any progress in our lifetimes—to create a world where wealth is evenly distributed, where everybody has an equal opportunity to be successful, where nobody is excluded because of their race or socioeconomic status—we need to stop glamorizing old money.
Illustration by Yoo Young Chun