Wed, Jan 31, 2018 - Page 13 News List

What’s behind rich people pretending to be self-made?

Americans reflexively link hard work with reward, but what happens as the two become ever more disconnected?

By Maia Szalavitz  /  The Guardian

A woman shows off her nails decorated with diamonds at the price of about 1 million yen (US$9,000) in May of last year. Researchers are finding links between effort/reward imbalance and health problems such as depression.

Photo: AFP

Bailey’s Beach in Newport, Rhode Island was once described by the New York Times as a summer spot for “America’s ruling class,” populated by Astors, Vanderbilts and other “emerald-barnacled dinosaurs attended by uniformed retainers and underwritten by ironclad fiduciary trusts.”

When Adam Roberts, now 33, spent childhood summers there, he wasn’t quite sure how his family fitted in.

While his friends’ summer homes were among Newport’s famous Gilded Age mansions, he could see that his own parents’ house was far less grand. And unlike many club members, they worked: his mother as a tutor and waitress, his father as an artisan stone carver.

“My family had a modest lifestyle,” he says, putting air quotes around modest. “But we also had access to these hyper-privileged spaces like prep school and the beach club.”

Americans reflexively connect hard work with deservingness. The American dream promises that if we work hard enough we will be rewarded, and that those who have wealth deserve to have it. We don’t think much about why a hedge-fund manager would “deserve” exponentially more than a doctor, scientist or teacher — or whether the measure of a person’s “worth” should be only economic.

But as effort and reward become ever more disconnected, what happens when strenuous labor is met with little money, or reward comes effortlessly, sometimes via inheritance?

Roberts’ upbringing forced him to face these questions as he began to recognize just how wealthy his family really was. His paternal grandparents, who have a multi-million dollar oil fortune, paid for a full ride at Brown University.

“I didn’t know what work/study was,” he says, recalling classmates discussing loans and financial aid. His previous social experiences had primarily been with people who had more than he did — not less.


Johannes Siegrist, senior professor of work stress research at the University of Dusseldorf, coined a term to study the health effects of unfair compensation: “effort/reward imbalance (ERI).”

“There are two versions,” he says. “You can either do too little and receive too much or do too much and receive too little.”

The second condition, not surprisingly, is far more common and has been the subject of much more research.

In studies that followed thousands of workers in different countries, Siegrist and others found that ERI is linked to health problems: specifically, an increased risk of coronary heart disease by about 40 percent and an 80 percent increase in the risk for depression. Since roughly one quarter of people in these studies work hard and see little gain, ERI is a significant problem in the workforce.

With rising job insecurity and stagnant wages, many workers feel as though they have no choice but to accept salaries and conditions that they would otherwise view as unfair. Research shows that over time, the proportion of jobs with high level ERI has risen, says Siegrist.

But being excessively rewarded without putting in much effort may also cause problems.

Although Siegrist cautions that the evidence is so far weak, his group does have unpublished data suggesting that feeling as though you have received unmerited reward is also associated with mental health problems.

For Roberts, the question of unearned reward became an obsession. He felt like he didn’t deserve the money he inherited, but he had no idea what to do.

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