Old Money and New Money: Breaking Down the Differences

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Old Money and New Money: What’s the Difference?

Every group has its rivalries, even when they have most things in commons. People who live a luxury lifestyle are no different. Surely, you’ve heard the terms 'old money' and 'new money' used to describe people, families, aesthetics, and so on. These terms are interesting, because they both represent two distinct styles of wealth and carry with them certain stereotypes. But, what exactly does old money or new money even mean?

Breaking Down the Terms

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The answer is similar to all terms used to generalize groups of people in that it is much more complicated than it seems. If you’re looking for the literal definition of the terms, they are self-evident. Old money refers to a person or family that has always been extremely wealthy, usually with a heavy focus on legacy and a sort of rearward nostalgia for past styles of finery or status. New money, obviously, is the opposite of that. It refers to a person or family who only recently became wealthy enough to live the same kind of lifestyle as the baron families of old.

For so many, especially those on the outside and looking in, it’s important to see beyond the stereotypes usually associated with these terms. Outsiders often see old money types as stuffy, out of touch with modern society, entitled, and even villainous. Conversely, new money types garner an image that is garish, uncultured, disrespectful, and involve flaunting their wealth recklessly. Even still, a greater understanding is required to fully understand old money and new money. 

Is There a Substantial Difference Between Old Money and New Money?

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When it comes to old money and new money, all that actually separates them is a length of time. Old money was once new money, and — barring catastrophe — new money will one day become old money. It’s not a person’s wealth that matters or when they obtained it. Rather, what defines an individual is what they do with what they have. Despite even the best of intentions and philanthropy donations, the use of these terms comes weighted with a certain connotation.

In fact, old money and new money do not generally function as compliments. Usually, these terms derisively call out a family or person’s behavior. Wearing jeans to the yacht club? Oh, must be new money. All bent out of shape because someone didn’t follow your stuffy old dress code? Oh, must be old money.

In that way, they are stereotypes for the rich, and mostly for this class to use against other rich individuals. Unlike harmful stereotypes born out of immutable human characteristics used to socially ostracize a class of people, old money and new money stereotypes should serve as a cultural warning to the elites of how not to be.

Is Anything Good About Old Money and New Money?

We will dig deeper into the negative aspects of old money and new money and how the ideas are perceived culturally. However, there are some positive attributes to these stereotypes, which again, are more about how a person views the world than the longevity of their bank accounts. Yet, instead of coming from fiction, the best examples hail from real life.

Old Money's Legacy

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To enumerate, old money usually includes the folks who understand what it means to build a legacy, because their predecessors set the precedent. This often translates to a desire to not just do what they can to turn a profit, but rather build an empire for generations to come.

For example, the Mellon family from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, earned their fortune through banking. However, their legacy was not Mellon Bank, which has since been sold off to both Citizens Bank and Bank of New York (now BNY Mellon). Rather, their legacy flourishes through the companies they nurtured, like General Motors or U.S. Steel, and their philanthropic efforts, such as the Mellon School of Science at Carnegie Mellon University.

New Money's Vision

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In contrast, new money types include people who remember being broke. The memories of struggling to make ends meet still freshly resonate in their mind. In terms of building a business, these recollections usually make these individuals more aggressive and ambitious. They aren’t ready to think about building charities and museums with their names on them yet. No, they still want to change the world (or, at least, their corner of it).

Even though he came from a family of considerable means, Elon Musk is a successful and wealthy person whom might be considered new money. Already a multi-billionaire, he’s using his businesses to advance clean energy, space exploration, and other technologies that will both make the world a better place and him a lot more money.

How Are Old Money and New Money Portrayed in Pop Culture?

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In media and literature, old money and new money are clearly distinct types of people, and usually it’s not a flattering characterization. Typically, these works portray the wealthy as the antagonistic power of an amoral system. A hyper focus on excess and casual disdain for others who don’t share their status prove that this stereotype is entrenched an artistic trope as anything. But this is not always the case.

In fact, billionaires make great superheroes, like Tony Stark’s Iron Man, Bruce Wayne’s Batman, Oliver Queen’s Green Arrow, or Danny Rand’s Iron Fist. Their wealth facilitates their superpowers in a way, assisting them in affording their crime-fighting tools. Interestingly, all of these heroes fall somewhere between old money and new money. Their parents all built their fortunes, which they inherited from their fathers.

When wealthy characters are the antagonists, the distinction of old money and new money seems irrelevant. Entertainment paints old money as sinister villains antagonizing the heroes to maintain their fortunes, power, or both. Similarly, new money is seen as driven to amass even larger fortunes and acquire more power with no qualms about who gets hurt along the way. But there is one piece of culture that really digs into this topic like no other.

The Great Gatsby: The Original Old Money and New Money Story

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic American novel, The Great Gatsby, is everyone’s favorite book (so they claim). The book is a wonderful modernist tale about the American Dream and a particularly detailed snapshot of luxury life in the 1920s. The story was born from Fitzgerald’s own experiences hobnobbing with the elites of the day. While today it might seem like a brutal take-down of both old money and new money rich folks, it’s actually an intimate peek behind the curtain of the lives of wealthy people. 

The titular character, Jay Gatsby, is new money. He’s a former alcohol bootlegger (though this is big secret), amassing a fortune to win the heart of a woman he met during the First World War, Daisy Buchannan. Daisy comes from an old money family, and she is married to Tom Buchannan, whose family is even older and richer than her own. Queue the drama!

How Does Fitzgerald Characterized Old Money and New Money?

Interestingly enough, no one in this book comes out looking like a hero. Gatsby’s focus on material wealth makes him eventually see the woman he loves as just another object to be won. Tom Buchannan is entitled, abusive, and unfaithful. He’s unconcerned with his wealth, but at the same time flaunts it whenever he can. He’s obsessed with how he’s perceived by others. Poor Daisy hides her unhappiness behind a veil of flighty whimsy.

Old Money and new money form the foundations of Fitzgerald’s classic characters. Where they fall on that spectrum drives their individual arcs. It's clear to see that the depictions of these fictional characters drives our current understanding of the concepts, if not swaying us to embrace these overwhelmingly negative generalizations.

Old Money and New Money Types in Real-Life

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We’ve covered much about how literature and the media see old money and new money, but what about in real life? Do these biases exist amongst the wealthy? Does everyone else perceive old money and new money this way? It’s possible, but there is no way to know for sure. As cultural references seep into reality, people develop stereotypical beliefs regarding these issues. However, like all things in life, it boils down to your individual actions.

Creating Old Money's Legacy with New Money

It holds true that the wealthy do not wish to be seen as old money, new money, or anything other than who they are as people. Until just recently, Bill Gates was the richest man in the world. With a fortune of more than $80 billion, the Microsoft founder is as new-money as it gets. But he also has a larger fortune than any other old money family. Yet, that’s likely not what he’ll be remembered for.

In fact, as technology changes and new companies come and go, Microsoft may not even be a lasting legacy for him. The company may merge, change, or even fail. In 50 years, Microsoft may go the way of Remington Typewriters, replaced by some new technological miracle. No, what people will remember Bill Gates for is his philanthropy. Like Andrew Carnegie before him, he and his wife have pledged to give away a vast majority of their fortunes. Their kids will receive an inheritance of about $10 million each, and the rest of their money will fund projects that save lives and change the world.

It is these commitments to the use fortune to better society of those labeled old money and new money that helps eliminate negative connotations. While there are certainly some individuals who embody the negative qualities thought to represent old and new money, it is far from the norm. 

The Verdict: There's No Real Difference Between Old Money and New Money.

As you can see, there are no intrinsic differences between old money and new money. These stereotypes, like most others, are only true in certain, anecdotal cases. People who have been rich all their lives have the capacity to act like new money types, and people who have only just earned their fortunes can behave as old money types. All that really matters is how you choose to interact with the world, and how you can try to help the people in it. Old money or new money doesn't matter, as long as we all leave the world a better place than we found it.

What do you think? Share your thoughts and reactions in the comments below!

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