Why are we so outraged by “nepo babies”? This is a question of particular interest to nepotism babies themselves who, since a recent New York magazine article on the children given a leg-up by their famous parents, have been attracting a level of opprobrium they are finding unnecessary and unfair. After all, they say, they might get a foot in the door, but then they have to work twice as hard and be twice as good or at least prove themselves equal to the task.
Kaia Gerber, the model daughter of Cindy Crawford, was last week the latest to make a variation on this point, which has been repeated so many times by nepo babies down the decades that it has become a sort of proverb.
Let us first take issue with this maxim. It is just not true. The sons and daughters of the famous are helped all the way along. The forces that propel them into their first job — members of the industry wanting to please their parents — are still present at the second and the third. No one sacks or underpromotes the child of someone very important if it could possibly be helped: Why risk torpedoing your own career?
Instead, thresholds are lowered, sometimes literally (Lily-Rose Depp, daughter of Johnny Depp, is just 160cm, but a stupendously successful model). And far from having to work extra hard to prove themselves, nepo babies have the scope to fail upwards, repeatedly. Bjork’s daughter, Isadora, had her big break at 17 with the film The Northman, which flopped. Yet she signed a major modeling contract just two months later. Give a nepo baby a second or third chance and earn even more gratitude from those influential parents.
They are also protected from many of the nasty obstacles their peers might have to deal with. No one sane bullies or harasses a nepo baby or drives them from an industry for all but the most heinous of crimes. These lucky children can afford to stray confidently outside the usual parameters of behavior, which is a risk, but in the arts can be an advantage.
Ultimate industry baby Dakota Johnson (daughter of Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith) deftly undermined Ellen DeGeneres on her own show, which boosted her career, but would have been an insane move for a less connected actor. In media, nepo babies can edge closer to the unsayable — all the better for Web traffic — and stay in the game.
OK, but who cares if a few sons and daughters get to have better careers, so long as they meet required standards? Does it really affect anything if it is Gwyneth Paltrow’s daughter, Apple Martin, rather than another equally pretty girl, who gets the job? Why are we so exercised about nepo babies?
Well, our outsize reaction might say something about the effect unfair reward systems have on us, wherever they show up. It turns out they are toxic. Reams of research and stacks of business books tell us that knocking incentives even slightly out of alignment with achievement has a terrible effect on organizations — plunging workers into a kind of exhausted cynicism.
Just one conspicuous instance of nepotism can infect an entire company, sending job satisfaction rolling downhill, along with productivity. Top employees leave and others stop bothering to compete. And what is true for companies is true for industries at large, or even societies.
Watching the children of the famous triumphantly straddle the arts is rather like watching former British minister Gavin Williamson get knighted or City bosses awarding themselves bonuses in a mediocre year. If the world’s glittering prizes have so little to do with performance, what is the point in even trying?
Is it not natural that parents want to help their children? Yes, and that is the problem. Nepotism is hard to root out, as you are fighting against one of the strongest human instincts: Parents devote lives and fortunes to giving their sprogs even the tiniest of head starts. (The actor Felicity Huffman risked — and got — jail to give her daughter an edge in college admissions.)
It would be strange if celebrity parents were not calling in favors to get their children to casting. And in jobs where ability is rather subjective and connections are everything, it is entirely rational for decisionmakers to give jobs to relatives of the famous. Cast a nepo baby in your play and their parents might come to opening night, tell their friends to support it, or do you a personal favor later.
In fact, incentives all tend to align toward nepotism. Until the late 1800s most jobs were simply inherited — and the top end of occupations, such as sports and politics, thick with the sons of the wealthy and connected.
As Zoe Kravitz, daughter of Lenny Kravitz, recently told GQ: “It’s completely normal for people to be in the family business. It’s literally where last names came from. You were a blacksmith if your family was, like, the Black family.”
She is right, nepotism is completely normal — which is what makes the meritocracies of the past century or so such an astonishing achievement. Societies where talent can rise to the top are wonderful exceptions within the broad sweep of history, but hard fought and more fragile than we might imagine.
We sense this, which is perhaps why we react so strongly to the idea of inherited actors and politicians. Nepo babies are bad for all of us.
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