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"I don't know. I don't identify with the term 'rich.' But I think I make a shit-ton of money," a 24-year-old Google employee making low six figures told me. Another told me he considered himself upper-middle-class, but "definitely not rich." Part of that's inevitable: The vast majority of Americans, at all coordinates of the economic spectrum, consider themselves middle class; this is a deeply ingrained, distinctly American cognitive dissonance. And when industry is so intimately tied to place, as it is in the Bay Area, you get something of an echo chamber: Many young developers move straight to San Francisco when they finish college and necessarily become friends with other young developers, aided in part by the happy hours, office parties, and other events that have become an integral part of both the tech world's social fabric and every company's list of perks. "If you don't have other friends, you're surrounded by people telling you, 'This is normal, this is normal,'" an employee of a large company told me. And at startups, especially, where the culture is one of long hours and marathon coding sessions, there's an idea that, as one person said, "you deserve it, because you work hard."
Indeed, said another, "It's very easy to think, 'I am special. I am better than other people at certain things. My skills are more valuable than others.' It's easy to fall into that trap and think you're getting paid more than other people because you're better."
And on top of that, San Francisco is and always has been an extraordinarily casual culture — and in tech, that ethos is occasionally taken to absurd extremes. "The people with money are the guys wearing skinny jeans for the first time instead of the bankers," said Crow. "I know very few billionaires that wear suits. The ones that I've met are wearing hoodies and jeans. It's been fascinating to see the way this has driven affluent culture to the casual." But if the old status symbol was a $4,000 suit and the new one is a pair of selvedge jeans and a $300 flannel shirt, that's more than just a trend — it's a completely new way of thinking about consumption and status. As the Wall Street Journal put it in a recent story, "An image that evokes stately power — say, a Park Avenue co-op complete with a baroque library — isn't a shared aspiration in tech." The piece's authors, Richard Morgan and Aaron Rutkoff, then went on to quote Ricky Van Veen, the boy-millionaire founder of CollegeHumor.com: "Why not get a Kindle, and then turn that room into something awesome?"
That same article relayed an anecdote about a table of female models who were eating at an expensive steakhouse in Manhattan. At some point in the meal, a group of men sitting nearby passed them a napkin with a scrawled email address: IamRich@Google.com. At the moment, the Journal seemed to encapsulate something specific and trenchant about tech money and, more broadly, circa-2013 class rage. But as it turns out, the napkin-passer is simply named Rich, and he told me he picked the vanity email address because his surname, Pleeth, is difficult to pronounce over the phone. Whether you believe Pleeth's account of events or not (I do), it's an illustrative example: The thing that's so vexing — and so interesting — about all of this is that it defies much of what we think we know about money and status and flash. If you simply try to map the behavior of the old-guard upper class onto the new generation, you get the story wrong.
"It's not the same. People [in tech] aren't very flashy," Pleeth told me from his office in London, over, naturally, Google Hangout. "It's not like bankers, who go to the club and get ten bottles of Dom Pérignon with, like, fireworks in it."
But the thing about this particular brand of low-key wealth is that it can lead to a false sense of self, on both a micro and a macro level. Consumption is still consumption even if it's less conspicuous. Class may be harder to see here, but that doesn't make it any less real. Mark Zuckerberg's still a billionaire, even if he's wearing a hoodie and jeans. And if you don't feel or look rich, you don't necessarily feel the same sense of obligation that a traditional rich person does or should: Noblesse oblige is, after all, dependent on a classical idea of who is and is not the nobility. As that starts to fall away, obligation — to culture, to the future, to each other — begins to disappear, too.
In the past several years, social science has produced a large cache of information about the psychological and sociological effects of sudden wealth. The statistics are astounding: Recent research has suggested that nine out of every ten lottery winners goes through his or her winnings in less than five years; according to Sports Illustrated, nearly 80 percent of NFL players file for bankruptcy within two years of retiring.
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