Friday, October 16, 2020

From Unmentionable to Unmeaningful


Up until the 1980s, I bet there wasn’t one reference to “wealth” or “rich people” in the  newsletters Merrill Anderson churns out for bank and trust companies. “Wealth” was unspeakable. Those who had managed to hang onto their fortunes during the Depression and World War II didn’t want attention. That meant newsletter articles had to signal their target market with euphemisms: people of means…affluent...with substantial assets…extensive resources.*

In the 1980s a new Boomer financial elite emerged – “If you’ve got it, show it!” William Safire noticed the trend in a 1981 On Language column. The New Money, and those aspiring to it, were talking fancier:
Only fuddy-duddies go to the gym, or to the drugstore, or to Europe; the upscale (formerly hoity-toity) crowd goes to the spa, or to the pharmacy, or to the Continent.

*** 

A decade ago, the passé people would say rich while the with-it types would say affluent; now the passé say affluent and the with-its say wealthy….

Wealth was mentionable again! And just it time.  Investment advisers faced a marketing challenge. Index funds had emerged, diminishing the perceived usefulness of active investment management. Advisers were responding by broadening their services – more estate planning, retirement planning, tax planning. Now they needed a term to describe their broader role – something with more pizazz than "financial planning."

Thanks to the renewed acceptability of "wealth," the solution was simple. Investment advisers became wealth managers. By the 1990’s the term “wealth management” had soared in popularity, as  this Google Ngram indicates.


"Wealth management" was a big-tent concept. Brokers offered it, insurance companies spun off wealth management units, bank trust departments hurried to rename themselves. Now, well into the 21st century, familiarity has bred confusion. 

Most people now think wealth means something nice but vague, Yale researchers have found. Who can blame them? Many years of marketing campaigns have told them "wealth is a life well lived," "wealth is peace of mind and happiness."

Only about one person in five, said the researchers, knows that wealth is what you have left after subtracting your debts from your assets. 

* On TV the other day I heard poor children euphemized as “under-resourced kids." 

1 comment:

Jim Gust said...

Great history lesson!