Baby Boomers Discover Guilt-Edged Luxury

Baby Boomers Discover Guilt-Edged Luxury


HE baby boomers have been criticized for most of our lives. Our parents weren’t thrilled with our hairstyles, our social protests or our music. When we told our parents we were going to backpack around Europe instead of getting a job right out of college, they thought they had raised a generation of bums.

But now that we have helped lead the nation to the greatest economic expansion in history, we are being criticized again, this time for enjoying it.

Our houses are too gaudy, our cars too big, and we think too much of ourselves instead of the greater good. We often respond to the criticism with defensiveness and guilt. A recent article, “The Narcissistic 90’s,” in The Trend Journal, a newsletter, says concern over social issues has been replaced by the need to succeed.

“Signs of a narcissistic society are seen on city streets and manicured suburban roads filled with gas guzzling, carbon-monoxide spewing four-wheel-drive vehicles,” it says. “Trophy houses and starter mansions consume land and resources beyond realistic housing needs.” The article does not swipe at baby boomers directly, but its target is clear.

Although the premise is hard to deny, it is not the whole story. Financial advisers say some baby boomers are extremely uncomfortable with their wealth and go out of their way not to let the money show.

“One client said he pays in taxes three times what his father made in salary,” said Kyra H. Morris, president of Morris Financial Concepts, a financial planning firm in Charleston, S.C. “Some are uncomfortable that they are making so much more than their parents or the people they run around with.”

Ms. Morris told of a wealthy client who asked her advice about the wisdom of buying a fancy sports car. He thought it was too much money.

“I told him, “If I can afford a $35,000 sports car, you can afford a $35,000 sports car,” she said.

The man, who requested that his name not be used, said he was worried about his image.

“Yeah, I really went back and forth on that,” he said. “I still do not drive the car to work. It sends out the wrong message that I’m displaying too much wealth and flaunting my success.”

To some boomers, the issue is not just about flaunting, but about the social responsibility that wealth brings. Considering that this generation once took to the streets over social issues, the pull some feel to put their money at the service of their idealism is not surprising.

Kenneth Bauer, 36, owner of Bauer International, a furniture importer and designer in Charleston, said his wealth had allowed him to donate to various groups. He and his wife, Dee Ann, also helped teach a village in Ghana how to make decorative brass hardware for his furniture. The village is now one of his suppliers.

“The trophy house and the 80-foot yacht are not what kicks me in the tail,” he said. “My main focus is, I have an obligation to give back to the community because of my success.”

James E. Carroll, 45, a partner at Carroll Realty in Isle of Palms, S.C., is active in several charities and said he tried not to flaunt his wealth.

“I’m almost embarrassed about the amount of money I make,” he said. “I have an old Mercedes to drive clients around in and a Dodge Caravan. I wanted to buy a sailboat, but I can’t see spending that kind of money. My whole goal is to save the money and not throw it around.”

The newly wealthy are the most likely to feel conflicting urges. David B. Yeske of Yeske & Company, a financial planning firm in San Francisco, said people who come into wealth suddenly often lack a well-developed idea of what the money means in their lives. Is the money a goal in itself or a tool for social good?

“Some people are incapable of acting responsibly because they haven’t developed the framework that relates them to their money in some meaningful way,” he said.

But those who are least comfortable with their wealth are the most likely to ponder broader goals. “Those who are thinking more clearly and deeply what this money means,” he said, “are usually very conflicted.”

They are also the most likely to feel responsibility to the community. “That resonates with them,” Mr. Yeske said. “Not those who just go out and act like it’s Christmas and buy a new boat or a Mercedes.”