Tales of 'humble origins' used to justify inherited wealth

Primary page content

Homeowners benefiting from 'the bank of mum and dad' commonly cite a family back story of humble origins and hard work to justify their own inherited wealth, a new study shows.

House for sale signs

The finding comes from research led by Goldsmiths, University of London that explored how people square their own unearned wealth with belief in social ideals of meritocracy.

The study may help to explain how people can both believe in tackling social inequality and reject inheritance tax: because even though they recognise their financial privilege they ascribe this to the sacrifices of previous generations, making any tax on this inheritance seem ‘unfair’.

A report of the research, which draws on 27 interviews with homeowners in London who had recently bought property with financial help from their parents or wider family, is published in the journal Economy and Society. The study was conducted by Dr Liz Moor from Goldsmiths and Professor Sam Friedman from the London School of Economics.

In the interviews some people admitted to feeling “really guilty” or uncomfortable when discussing the advantages their inherited wealth gave them over friends who did not receive family assistance to get on the housing ladder. A common response was to deploy what the researchers describe as an ‘intergenerational self’, a back story characterised by humble origins, hard work and upward mobility, that recasts familial gifts as evidence of multigenerational meritocratic success.

When discussing her family back story one participant, Lucy*, said: “[My parents] never really earned a lot of money but they were always careful with money and that’s rubbed off on me’... We were brought up with that sense of needing to be sensible about money.” Another participant, Les, said about his father: “He was training at uni for, like, nine years ... he was like, we had a black and white telly in the eighties ... there was no fancy stuff” adding his father had to “work hard ... and go without” to buy a house, implying others were not prepared to make such sacrifices.

The researchers show how this concept of the intergenerational self colours attitudes to inheritance tax. One participant Alison said: “Especially with the more working class families, some of those parents have absolutely killed themselves with those houses... all that hard work’s going to be stripped away from the children because they're can't afford the tax on it. It breaks my heart.” While another, Georgia said: “I see inheritance tax as double tax ... I think it’s quite bad that it gets taxed again” and Alison said: “I would be very angry if someone told me that I couldn’t give my children money.”

Participants were also keen to draw boundaries between their own wealth and the greater or less ‘deserved’ wealth of others, such as footballers and celebrities, as well as suggesting alternative ways to combat inequality than inheritance tax such as tackling corporations that pay minimal tax or removing the charitable status of private schools.

Dr Liz Moor, Senior Lecturer in Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, said: “It’s striking that almost everyone we interviewed believed they ‘deserved’ their unearned wealth and the foothold it has given them on the property ladder. People are sensitive to inequality and unfairness, but they also tend to believe that intergenerational privilege lies with other people, not them.

“By projecting a family back story of frugality and hard work, creating an ‘intergenerational self’, they are able to justify financial gifts from family as ‘normal’ and not a major source of inequality while acknowledging that other people’s inherited wealth, such as that of celebrities and the super-rich, is damaging to society.

“The idea that they deserve this financial privilege is both a genuinely held belief and one that is convenient when it comes to opposing a tax that would stop this privilege from being passed down the generations.”

A report of the research, entitled ‘Justifying inherited wealth: Between ‘the bank of mum and dad’ and the meritocratic ideal’, is published in Economy and Society.

*All names are pseudonyms.

Image: House for sale signs via Wikimedia Commons, credit: Terry Robinson.