Is generosity the new Jaguar? The next private plane? Is philanthropy emerging as the new status symbol among those who remain wealthy in these financially troubled times, and if so, is that necessarily a good thing?
Wall Street Journal wealth columnist Robert Frank, author of Richistan: A Journey Through the American Wealth Boom and the Lives of the New Rich, said the recession had helped spur America’s rich to search for new status symbols. “Yachts, private jets, seaside mansions are so 2007,” Frank wrote recently. “But being wealthy enough and generous enough to get on the Giving Pledge list, (a joint philanthropy initiative launched by billionaires Bill Gates and Warren Buffett,) may quickly become the ultimate badge of status — both in the U.S. and abroad.”
If philanthropy really is the next version of owning a private jet, what does that mean? Is a real change in how people, at least people of means, relate to their money really happening? Will that change impact the rest of us?
It seems that with every economic downturn, we see predictions about how people will adjust their lives, buy differently and now, give more away. But it rarely plays out that way, at least in any sustainable fashion. And as soon as there is a rebound, we go back to our old ways. Perhaps that’s good and perhaps not, but it is so.
And on the issue of generosity among the wealthy, it may be even more likely that the predictions are more a reflection of the hopes of those making them than a description of some new reality. After all, there is a big difference between spending less, which even the wealthy are doing, and giving more. The former is a function of feeling diminished, while the later demands feeling flush. Or does it?
There is no question that giving away money does have the ability to build up the giver’s sense of capacity, even if it is not a hot trend. When any of us experiences a shortage of any resource, especially money, demonstrating that we still have enough to share reminds us that we have more than we originally thought. Giving shifts the focus shifts scarcity to abundance even though our accounts are less abundant than they were a year or two ago.
Whether increased generosity turns out to be a trend among the wealthy or not, the notion that giving is among the best restoratives for those experiencing diminished financial capacity is one of those things we can all learn from. In fact, according to Jewish tradition, even the poorest among us are obligated to give charity. Could it be that wealthy Americans are catching up with an ancient tradition which has always known that giving is as important to building up the giver as it is to building up the receiver?
Whatever the trend turns out to be, there is no question that there will always be people in need, if for no other reason than “need” is culturally and contextually defined, and there will always be opportunities to help them. Whether helping those in need makes us feel richer or not, I know of no time when anyone who did so, and did so freely and willingly, felt worse about themselves for having done so. In a world where so much of what we think we have can vanish in an instant, it’s nice to have something like that, something which nobody can ever take away.