As the butler in a billionaire's household I'm frequently asked about the differences between the old rich and the new. This is one of those areas where generalizations are dangerous of course, in that we're all so different in the way we conduct ourselves - whether we're new rich, old rich, or poor for that matter.
To make an attempt to answer, let's first look at the definitions:
Old Rich is usually associated with land ownership (the landed gentry), with money being inherited down the line for at least three generations. These people live from their trust funds and incomes from their properties. They don't have to work - at least as we know it - but to be fair some of them do administrate. Which is great work if you can get it, right?
New Rich (the Nouveau Riche) usually refers to those who've made their fortunes themselves - as industrialists, bankers, builders, the oil rich, inventors, investors - not to mention the money that flows from sports and media fame - actors, musicians and the like.
An interesting note here: in America the Rockefeller family (oil) and the DuPont family (gun powder), the Vanderbilt's (railroads) and the Astor's (real estate and hotels) were once considered new rich. But since these families have managed to hang on to their fortunes and pass it down to these very days, they're now considered old rich families.
Moving right along - conventional wisdom has some very specific adjectives when describing the new and the old rich:
The Old: Quiet, proper, reserved, careful and moderate. They don't know any other way of life except being rich.
The New: Loud, crass, vulgar, gauche and splashy. They're ecstatic about their new-found wealth, and why not have some fun, right?
I have to admit I agree with the above assessments. But again, the danger of generalizations is that it overlooks the new rich who are quiet, modest and share their wealth through charities of all sorts. And it overlooks the famous heirs from prominent old rich families who's crassness and vulgarities are constantly being splashed across the news and Hollywood tabloids. So go figure.
In Europe, there are three classes: The Royals of course, the Bourgeoisie (people with lots of money), and the Proletariat (the working classes). Interestingly enough, no matter how many billions the Bourgeoisie might accumulate, they still cannot cross that social barrier of becoming Royalty. Although with enough money and socially-important accomplishments you could be 'Knighted', like Sir Paul McCartney or Dame Edith Evans.
In America, having thrown off kings and queens in the War of Independence, we just have the Bourgeoisie (our Upper Classes), and the Proletariat (our Middle and Lower Classes). And not having royalty to keep the richest bourgeoisie in their place, our American billionaires often seem like fish out of water - flopping around, not knowing what to do with themselves and all their money, and constantly embarrassing themselves in front of a TV audience.
Nonetheless, we still try to re-create royalty in America by assigning lineage as an indication of respectability and respect. Members of the Mayflower Society, families that can trace their ancestors back to the Mayflower, are of high esteem. Then there's the DAR, Daughter's of the American Revolution, way up there on the list of American high society. And there's the Junior League that further establishes a social hierarchy in America in the absence of royalty.
The thing is, history shows us that being rich, whether new or old, is of no real indication of serious intelligence, magnanimity, or any social conscience at all. You can have old money out the wazoo and still be stupid as an ox, or even worse, selfish. Or new money that allows you the opportunity for selflessness, grace and charity.
To wind this up, I really don't know what else to say about the differences between the new and the old rich. There's decidedly a difference, of course. But who really cares, and why? Would you rather be at a cocktail party with a bunch of boring old-rich buzzards - or a nutty new rich party where any crazy thing might happen? I vote for the latter myself - but that's just me.
As always, thanks for stopping by this evening,