What money can’t buy: Is wealth slowly degrading our relationships?

An uptick in financial fortune has made our lives better in many ways. But is it also making our lives worse?


 

A large swathe of Indians in the UK are twice migrants, arriving in Britain via Kenya at a time of strife. Most made this journey in the seventies, as teenagers with nothing but a suitcase and dreams. Amongst these dreamers were my parents.

New arrivals typically joined twelve or so others in three-bedroom terraced houses, scrambling for a little space as they shacked up with aunts, uncles, cousins and friends. They found themselves in a version of Britain still some way from a racial awakening, and they suffered the consequences. They worked demanding and low-paid jobs, saving money wherever they could.

Nothing was ever too much, everyone had time for each other.
Out of this poverty and adversity bloomed community. People gathered to support each other. They pitched in to prepare food, clear gardens, look after kids and pretty much everything else. Nothing was ever too much, everyone had time for each other. It was the most powerful form of social capital.

This community, alongside their families, formed the backbone of their lives, helping them survive and eventually thrive. Over time these migrants got better jobs, built businesses and bought houses.

Growing up

I’m an eighties baby. My parents were not wealthy but, by the time I was born, they owned their own end-of-terrace house in the suburbs of East London (ok, Ilford) that a real estate agent would describe as a “cosy fixer-upper.”

As a child, I still experienced some sense of community. We had a string of friends, family and even relatively random folk living with us over the years. We lived without formality. Guests slept wherever there was space—on the floor or three-to-a-bed wasn’t uncommon.

We made more space for fewer people.
Family was central to our lives. In my early teens, I lived with my aunt, uncle and cousins for three years as my parents experimented with rebuilding a life in Kenya. This sharing of space built an intimacy of relationship that couldn’t have happened any other way.

But by my late teens, change was in the air.

My parents’ Kenya experiment failed and so they moved back to Ilford. For the first time in my life, we lived as a nuclear family with only the odd guest now and then. The cosy fixer-upper started to grow—unsightly extensions soon jutted from the top and back of the house—and got sort of fixed up. We made more space for fewer people.

My parents’ generation paved the way for my generation to get educated, assimilate and pursue lives as bankers, lawyers, artists and stand-up comedians (and, yes, the stereotype has some truth to it: doctors, dentists and pharmacists). We are earning more money than our parents could ever have dreamed of.

Growing apart

My cousins, my brother and I have all found well paid jobs. Each of us has a spouse and a house, white picket fence and all. We live a drive, rather than a walk, away. As our lives revolve around work and friends, we make less time for each other. Our children, benefitting from a cushion of wealth and acceptance that our parents could only imagine, will not be close—if they know each other at all. Our family bonds are weakening, and they will eventually break. Who will we rely on then?

The communities that were the centre of our parents’ lives no longer hold any meaning for us. We do not need each other in anywhere near the same way. It’s uncomfortable when people pop over unannounced, let alone stay for any period of time. This discomfort is reinforced by a belief that people expect a certain level of ‘service’—ensuite bathroom, lovely soaps, thank you cards and the like. Do people become a lesser part of our lives as relationships become peppered with wealth-led formality?

We no longer burden friends and family for help. We get the professional paint job and not the amateur version from our friends. We have nannies and childminders instead of grandparents looking after our kids. We do not want to impose. Why should we when we can just pay? All of these decisions make sense, yet each makes our lives a touch more transactional and less connected. Each time we choose not to ask our family and friends for help, are we missing out on an opportunity for the laughs, smiles and tears that we all know form the foundation of meaningful connections with people we love?

We do not need each other in anywhere near the same way.
As a result of my job, I’ve found myself amongst ‘cultural elites’ drinking craft beer and spirulina smoothies. My peer group is one that celebrates independence as something we must have and deserve. We are lucky enough to live in a time when we have the means to build our lives in our way and on our own terms, and we are encouraged to do so.

Are we missing the potential costs of this independence? Do we not see the pain of loneliness up ahead, creeping up on us to become one of the most important health issues of our time? Will we ignore the greater pressure on social cohesion—now is the time of greatest wealth, but it’s also fast becoming the time of the greatest inequality the world has ever seen—as we spend more time in echo chambers with people like us, rather than the ragtag personalities of our families and early friendships?

As I reflect on the impact of growing wealth, I can see that it has bought many of us important things like space, freedom and choice—but at what cost? How much will society have to pay for the long term, slow burning degradation of relationships that our growing wealth might bring?

 

Follow Amit on Twitter at @i_am_muser

Photo credit: Ishant Mishra