Lately, Sam Jacobs has had a lot of conversations with his family’s lawyers. He’s trying to gain access to more of his $30 million trust fund. At 25, he’s hit the age when many heirs can blow their money on harebrained businesses or a stable of sports cars. He doesn’t want to do that, but by wealth management standards, his plan is just as bad. He wants to give it all away.
“I want to build a world where someone like me, a young person who controls tens of millions of dollars, is impossible,” he said.
A socialist since college, Jacobs sees his family’s “extreme, plutocratic wealth” as both a moral and economic failure. He wants to put his inheritance toward ending capitalism, and by that he means using his money to undo systems that accumulate money for those at the top, and that have played a large role in widening economic and racial inequality.
Millennials will be the recipients of the largest generational shift of assets in American history — the Great Wealth Transfer, as finance types call it. Tens of trillions of dollars are expected to pass between generations in just the next decade.
And that money, like all wealth in the United States, is extremely concentrated in the upper brackets. Jacobs, whose grandfather was a founder of Qualcomm, expects to receive up to $100 million over the course of his lifetime.
Most of his fellow millennials, however, are receiving a rotten inheritance — debt, dim job prospects and a figment of a social safety net. The youngest of them were 15 in 2011 when Occupy Wall Street drew a line between the have-a-lots and everyone else; the oldest, if they were lucky, were working in a post-recession economy even before the current recession. Class and inequality have been part of the political conversation for most of their adult lives.
In their time, the ever-widening gulf between the rich and poor has pushed left-wing politics back into the American political mainstream. President-elect Joe Biden trailed Sen. Bernie Sanders, the socialist candidate, by 20 points among millennial voters in this year’s Democratic presidential primary. And over the past six years, millennials have taken the Democratic Socialists of America from a fringe organization with an average member age of 60 to a national force with chapters in every state and a membership of nearly 100,000, most of them under 35.
Jacobs, as both a trust-fund kid and an anti-capitalist, is in a rare position among leftists fighting against economic inequality. But he isn’t alone in trying to figure out, as he put it, “what it means to be with the 99%, when you’re the 1%.”
Challenging the System
“I was always taught that this is just the way the world is, that my family has wealth while others don’t, and that because of that, I need to give some of it away, but not necessarily question why it was there,” said Rachel Gelman, a 30-year-old in Oakland, California, who describes her politics as “anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist and abolitionist.”
Her family always gave generously to liberal causes and civil society groups. Gelman supports groups devoted to ending inequality, including the Movement for Black Lives, the National Day Laborer Organizing Network and Critical Resistance, a leading prison abolition group.
“My money is mostly stocks, which means it comes from underpaying and undervaluing working-class people, and that’s impossible to disconnect from the economic legacies of Indigenous genocide and slavery,” Gelman said. “Once I realized that, I couldn’t imagine doing anything with my wealth besides redistribute it to these communities.”
According to the consulting firm Accenture, the Silent Generation and baby boomers will gift their heirs up to $30 trillion by 2030, and up to $75 trillion by 2060. These fortunes began to amass decades ago — in some cases centuries. But the concentration of wealth became stratospheric starting in the 1970s, when neoliberalism became the financial sector’s guiding economic philosophy and companies began to obsessively pursue higher returns for shareholders.