An embarrassment of riches: Why millennials won’t talk about their inheritance

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ByMarianne Eloise

We’ve all been made painfully aware of how millennials are falling behind previous generations financially: Many of us may never own property, achieve job security or afford to have children. However, we are better at talking about money. A recent study found that 30% of millennials in the US share financial info with their friends, compared to just 9% of boomers. There are several reasons for this, but generally it appears that we recognize the benefits of talking about it, even if it’s awkward or taboo; transparency around salaries, debt and other fiscal issues empower us to take control of our finances.

That transparency has also enabled us to recognize privilege. While millennials are less likely to own their own homes, the ones that can afford to are often “helped out” by their parents. Even the rare few who have scraped together a down payment on their own can often only do so by living with their parents rent-free, leaving potential home-buyers with poor or absent families off the housing ladder.

Recognizing these realities are crucial to understanding the unique wealth disparities between millennials and the broken systems that have forced adults to rely on their parents at all. It also means that while being broke was once not cool, to say the least, it’s now the norm. In some cases, it even awards a person a certain type of credibility (which is a complex and messed-up concept).

Do they disclose their new situation and risk setting themselves apart from struggling friends? Or slink into secrecy?

Having financial privilege is tricky. It sometimes serves as a red flag that you’re a spoiled brat who hasn’t had to work for anything. And while that’s not always the case, think about how the word “privilege” makes you feel when you say it out loud. A bit lewd? That’s the sign of a culture that’s shifted.

That being said, there are complexities to financial privilege. One of them is inheritance. Even people in their 20s and 30s who previously didn’t have access to parental handouts are finding themselves suddenly in receipt of relatively large sums of money after losing a family member. Naturally, many are taking the plunge to buy property they would otherwise not have been able to afford. For some, this is difficult to navigate — a sudden windfall, especially after a great loss, puts ordinarily candid millennials in a tricky position. Do they disclose their new situation and risk setting themselves apart from struggling friends? Or slink into secrecy?

Of course, having to lose a beloved family member in order to achieve financial security is a morbidly unfair trade. That makes the situation even more contentious — in order to discuss it, the recipients of inheritance need to talk about a major loss in an effort to “justify” their new circumstances. When you’ve previously talked to your friends about money, suddenly keeping quiet about a major change can feel awkward. Charlotte, a 25-year-old living in the UK, recently lost her grandparents and discovered that they left behind a large estate of property, money, and jewelry. The inheritance was not just surprising, it was “at odds” with her politics. “I’ve always strived to be financially independent and have worked hard to save money and afford my current lifestyle, and I value those attributes in others,” she says.

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Growing up, Charlotte’s parents were far from wealthy, and she’d always worked to support herself. The estate, which comes from her great grandparents’ business, far exceeds what Charlotte thought her family had. “The idea of being handed enough money for a deposit, let alone a house, without having worked for it makes me uncomfortable, especially living in London and seeing how people struggle,” she says. While the estate comes from her family’s hard work, she has a hard time talking to her friends about it since she’s always been in the same boat as them, socioeconomically. This skewed everything. “When I talk to my friends and hear about their financial struggles and how they’re worried about their long-term stability and ability to keep living in London, I do feel bad that it’s unlikely I will ever have to worry about being in the same situation,” she says.

While this, to some, might seem like a cry-me-a-river type situation, it reflects the substance behind the new stigma of privilege. It sets you apart from being “the people,” especially those belonging to marginalized groups who have historically been oppressed by systems of oppression — giving new meaning to “an embarrassment of riches.” Inheritance specifically, or any other golden step stool that hoists a young person past their peers, feels icky because it is technically not earned.

Sarah, also 25 and also reluctant to use her full name in fear of being trolled, recently bought her first home after losing her grandad. Her story highlights the injustice of housing in major cities: The only reason her inheritance was substantial was due to the fact her grandad bought his home for $8,000. “I haven’t posted about it on Instagram because the first question is ‘how,’ and I don’t want to go into detail,” she says. “It seems like the only ‘good’ way to buy a house is ‘I worked so hard and saved all this money,’ but that’s unfeasible unless you live rent-free,” she adds: “The detail I’d have to go into is about my dead grandad, and that seems quite crass”. Instead, fearing judgment, she avoided disclosing anything.

It sets you apart from being “the people,” especially those belonging to marginalized groups who have historically been oppressed by systems of oppression — giving new meaning to “an embarrassment of riches.”

Speaking from the other end, feeling like your friends suddenly have something huge that you don’t can yield a challenging melange of emotions. Feeling like they didn’t “earn” it makes it sting that little more.

As Sarah points out, the most shocking thing about her story is how much that house is now worth. “It shows how insane the housing market is, and that if you don’t have a relative that managed to buy when property was cheap you’re basically fucked now. That’s unsustainable and awful, and means that so many people may never have the chance to buy a house.”

Our generation’s willingness to talk about finances mostly revolves around commiserating, but when one person suddenly finds themselves with privilege and unable to relate, it can feel at odds with how they see themselves. Being transparent about finances and discussing the societal factors that deny some of us access to the privilege others are afforded are completely necessary exercises.

Shaming friends into feeling like they can’t discuss their situation, especially when it’s tied into something as complex as grief, won’t help anyone. Having to lose someone to access security is not a fair trade, and rather than shaming our friends’ “luck,” we would ideally shift our energy to work on fixing the broken systems that prevent us from achieving stability on our own terms. Easier declared than done, of course, but we can into the privilege of being a dreamer in another story.