Dot-com wealth reveals poverty of American Dream

Wealth is proving too much for the young Silicon Valley millionaires. Rather than flocking to shrinks, Iain Murray says money-hungry marketers should bide their time

It seems reasonable to assume that most people in marketing are there for the money. True, there must be some job satisfaction in creating lavish TV commercials for cars that no one understands, and in being party to the vulgar rubbish used to promote high-street fashion in general and underwear in particular. But such pleasure is slight and fleeting when compared with the wealth that might reasonably be expected to flow from the liberal but creative use of adjectives such as “new”, “exciting”, “fantastic” and so on.

However, evidence on the other side of the Atlantic, whence everything of true importance springs, suggests that those who make a great deal of money had better do it slowly. In Silicon Valley, dot-com millionaires number tens of thousands and it is estimated that 64 new ones are created every day.

But are they happy? Do they rejoice in their sudden, immense wealth? Do they rush out and buy new, exciting and fantastic things?

No, they do not. They brood. They mope. They wring their hands, knot their brows, and pace their floors, stalked by demons of anxiety, depression, guilt, and something called dysfunction. (The Greek prefix “dys”, borrowed from the world of medicine and meaning “bad”, is preferred to the Latin “dis”, more normally used in English, and meaning “the reverse of”, largely, one suspects, for pseudo-scientific reasons.) At any rate, these badly functioning new multi-millionaires suffer dreadfully, mainly because they are young, callow and unable to handle wealth. So much for the old lament that money usually comes too late in life to be enjoyed.

In the US, there is only one known way out of awakening to find yourself rich beyond measure and functioning badly – make haste to a shrink. In Silicon Valley, they are especially fortunate to have at their disposal two practitioners, Stephen Goldbart and Joan DiFuria, who have set up a clinic for saddened millionaires called The Money, Meaning and Choices Institute.

They have discovered that the first effect of instantly making oodles of loot is profound shock. “It’s like celebrity status,” says DiFuria. “They think, ‘who can I really trust?’ Some of them are quite paranoid.”

Goldbart adds: “They’ve bought the BMW and the $3m house. And they still wake up in the morning and say, ‘I don’t feel good about myself’.”

It must indeed be deeply shocking to discover at an early age the emptiness of materialism. If the American Dream means anything, it is that all citizens, no matter what their background or origin, can through their own efforts and enterprise become wealthy. Such is the intoxicating potency of the dream that no one stops to think what the purpose of wealth might be – it is an end in itself.

But as the disillusioned millionaires of Silicon Valley now tell the psychotherapists in their marbled halls, there is an unspoken assumption that riches have the power to make you feel good about yourself. And it is, of course, the constitutional birthright of every American to feel good about himself. (That should be the ungrammatical “themselves” since the flagrant use of the masculine pronoun in public is a denial of the right of every American woman to feel good about herself.)

The sorry plight of California’s nouveaux riches is another example of the malaise that afflicts the US as it slides into mushy emotional self-indulgence. The single greatest benefit that wealth confers is independence. Oh to be free not to give a hoot for Tony Blair and his New Britain. Not to have to work from January to May each year solely to help fund state spending.

Time was in the US when the virtues most prized were freedom and self-reliance: now, when fate hands them to people more competent than others at computer science, they are dismayed to discover they don’t feel good about themselves. They deserve to be lined up outside clinics and made to hand over their riches to psychologists whose appetite for the poolside life is undiminished by pelf nor cloyed by abundance.

The message for marketers is plain: if you are going to make immense wealth, take your time. Let the years roll by. Allow life to imprint lines on your brow and wisdom in your head. Then, when the time is right and you are ready to handle the fortune that is your due, take up your pencil, lick the pointed end, stick out your lower lip, and slowly inscribe on a single sheet of A4 the letters “FCUK”. It should serve both as talisman and inspiration. And you will, believe me, feel good about yourself. Indeed, if a past example is anything to go by, you will feel downright smug.

It is often said that marketing is the skill of establishing and then satisfying wants. Let them, for a change, be your wants. Like the folk in the shampoo commercials, grin vacuously at the mirror and repeat, “Because I’m worth it”. Who knows? Say it often enough and it might acquire some meaning.

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