What Is Affluenza?

"Affluenza" is a social condition that arises from the desire to be more wealthy or successful. It can also be defined as the inability for an individual to understand the consequences of their actions because of their social status and/or financial privilege.

Key Takeaways

  • Affluenza is a social condition that presents itself in individuals in positions of high status or privilege who believe that they will not be held accountable for their actions because of their social position.
  • Individuals who suffer from affluenza fail to recognize the societal repurcussions of their actions, which may cause mental or physical harm or anguish upon others.
  • Affluenza also refers to the single-minded pursuit of accumulating wealth and success which has the potential to damage relationships and cause depression and/or anxiety.
  • Social scientists blame the appearance of affluenza on contemporary culture that fetishizes wealth but provide strategies to avoid this social condition.


Understanding Affluenza

The word affluenza is a combination of the words "affluence" and "influenza." It is a symptom of a culture with strong materialistic values, where the accumulation of riches is considered one of the highest achievements. People said to be impacted by this condition typically find the economic success they've been pursuing in a singleminded way leaves them feeling unfulfilled once they've achieved. They live in a constant state of dissatisfaction because they always want more than what they already have.

Proponents of affluenza theory claim that those afflicted by the condition operate under the assumption that money will buy them happiness. However, they often find that the pursuit of wealth robs them of fulfillment and leaves them feeling perpetually unsatisfied. They often have trouble functioning in normal society and distinguishing between right and wrong because the world of privilege they live in insulates them from the rest of the world and prevents them from developing empathy for people of modest backgrounds.

In a society of growing income inequality, those with financial privilege are more likely to sequester themselves from the population at large. This phenomenon fosters a sense of entitlement that can be self-perpetuating: the wealthy feel they have earned their way into a social class with superior intellect and talent, and as a result, rules of society that apply to other people do not apply to them.

Symptoms of affluenza include a myopic focus on work and earning money, strained personal relationships, depression, a self-image tied directly to financial status, and difficulty interacting with or relating to others.

Affluenza and the Media

Affluenza as a social condition has been the subject of books and television shows and has been used as a defense in criminal trials.

In December 2013, a Texas teenager who struck and killed four pedestrians while driving drunk was sentenced to 10 years of probation and zero jail time after his attorney successfully argued that his privileged upbringing precluded his ability to understand the consequences of his actions.

In June 2016, a Stanford University swimmer convicted of sexually assaulting a female student on campus received a six-month jail sentence. While reading the sentence and justifying its leniency, the judge in the case stated a prison term "would have a severe impact on" the defendant. Critics allege this was an allusion to the student's wealth and sheltered upbringing, both factors that were allowed to influence his sentence.

Affluenza in America

Affluenza is the most prevalent in economically viable countries such as the U.S. America has a reputation as being the home of rugged individualism. However, recent research has shown that reaching the top tier of income earners is much easier if previous generations of your family were in the top if your parents were also in the top tier if income-earners. The socioeconomic class where Americans are born strongly correlates with the social status they achieve; this perpetuates the social situation where the condition of affluenza develops.

A 2019 paper authored by two Stanford researchers published a study that analyzed the “intergenerational elasticity” (IGE) of American families – in other words, the degree to which parents’ income affected the children’s earnings in adulthood. Overall, they found an average IGE of around 0.5, meaning that parental income accounts for about half of a child’s eventual wages (the IGE was marginally higher for men than women – 0.52 vs. 0.47).[cite]

When they looked at those on the higher end of the income scale, however, the correlation was more like two-thirds. So you’re a lot more likely to end up affluent if you were born that way (For more, see America's Decreasing Economic Mobility).

This isn’t the only research to show a lack of social mobility among the wealthy. Richard V. Reeves, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, has noted that 30% of children born into the top quintile of income-earning families are likely to stay there. Another 26% end up in the second-highest quintile as adults. 

However, the odds of making into the top two quintiles are dramatically lower if you were born without means. White children who start in the lowest rung, Reeves reports, have a just one-in-four chance of cracking the top 40% as a grownup. For black children, the figure is even more dismal: 51% who grow up in the bottom rung remain there in adulthood.

Figure 1. The following chart reveals the odds that an individual born into a particular quintile (20%) of income earners will end up in each quintile by age 40. 

Chart depicting which wealth quintile an individual will end up in given which they were born into

Source: The Brookings Institution 

It’s worth noting, however, that not every segment of society is equally influenced by the generation that preceded it. For example, the Stanford team found that females had a lower correlation between their income and that of their parents' than did males. One possibility: women simply work less when their husbands make a fairly large salary. 

Where you live also seems to affect social mobility. One study found that residents of some cities, such as Salt Lake City and San Jose, had relatively high levels of upward mobility. In other places, such as Milwaukee and Atlanta, the chances of moving up the ladder are miniscule. 

‘The Transmission of Advantage’

There are a number of possible explanations for what social scientists dub “the intergenerational transmission of advantage.” One of the most basic is the vital influence of education on future wages. Wealthier parents are more likely to have college degrees, thereby serving as role models for their children to attend university, too. They also have the means to put their kids in better schools.

A Johns Hopkins study tracked about 800 students living in Baltimore from first grade until their late 20s. Only 4% of lower-income students went on to earn a college education, compared to 45% of kids from more affluent families. Students armed with a university degree are in a much better position to find a high-paying job.

Researchers have also found less obvious reasons for the passage of wealth from one generation to the next. For instance, Reeves notes that studies are finding that prosperous parents tend to spend more time with their children, possibly imparting more of the skills and character traits that lead to long-term success.

That extra attention is particularly important in one’s early years. Children in the poorest families hear fewer words than those from affluent, educated families – 30 million more by age 4, according to one estimate, Reeves reports. By the time these less-advantaged children enter school, they already lag behind in terms of vocabulary.

Avoiding Affluenza

There is no official diagnosis of affluenza, which means it's not really a disorder unto itself, but rather refers to a set of circumstances and environmental factors that contribute to maladaptive behavior. However, there are ways parents can help prevent its development in their offspring.

In this helicopter era of parenting, children are kept in the dark about money and finances, but the sooner you start teaching them about those things, the more financially responsible they will become. Much of what children will learn is by watching you, and so if you tell them about your hard work, show them how you save money in the bank and don’t indulge in impulse shopping, your children won’t either.

Teach Them How to Handle Money

If your children don’t understand the value of money and how to manage it, chances are they won’t hang onto it for too long. An effective way to teach children how to handle money is to set them up with their own bank accounts where they can save the money that they earn or that is given to them. Give a check for their birthday or a holiday, and they can put it in their savings account. When your children are older, they get to control the account. Often what happens is the child begins to value the money he saved and thinks twice about spending it on something frivolous.

Set Boundaries

Children are hardwired to test the boundaries to see what they can get away with, but if you set limits, it will create financially responsible adults. If you give in to your child’s every whim, it can set them up for a life of instant gratification and debt. And those are not the values you will want your children to have when they receive their inheritance or the family business is passed down. Take gifts as an example: if your child receives a monetary one, have him save three-quarters of it and spend one-quarter. If he had his heart set on buying something with the money, that will teach him how to wait and save instead of being gratified instantly.

Don’t Help Them Out of Sticky Situations

Handling money correctly takes time, and children will make plenty of mistakes along the way. But if your children mess up, you shouldn’t bail them out. Let’s say Junior blows his allowance for the week but really wants the latest iPhone app. If you give in and purchase it for him, you are doing him a big disservice. Children have to learn that everything costs money and their spending choices have consequences.

Create a Smart Shopper

In this always on, advertising-driven world, children have to learn early about how to be smart shoppers. It’s easy to get bamboozled into overpaying for something or buying a worthless warranty. It’s the parents’ job to teach their children how to comparison shop and to get the best deal. By researching any big-ticket item before purchasing, children will not only learn to make wise decisions, but to avoid hasty ones as well.

Encourage Your Children to Work

During the high school years, education will be your children's primary focus, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn't earn some money along the way. It’s not a good idea to have your child work every day after school, but a couple of shifts at the local grocery store on the weekends can go a long way in instilling a strong work ethic. Even doing chores around the house or in the neighborhood can be a way to teach your children about the importance of working.