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The self-inflicted angst of the never rich enough


This is a real classic in the “making a mid-six-figure-salary is barely scraping by, if you spend tons of money on things you want to buy and compare yourself to the Roy family” genre:

There’s a game a friend of mine likes to play in her affluent Brooklyn neighborhood: When she’s walking down Henry Street, she looks up at the multimillion-dollar brownstones and imagines the lives of the people inside. In her version, most of them went to Harvard and made life choices better than hers, which have rewarded them with original pocket doors and Gaggenau appliances. But then she remembers: They still have to lug a stroller up the front stairs every time they come home. They still have to bring their laundry to the basement where there are probably mice. “It’s so crazy how rich you have to be in New York to live comfortably, just comfortably,” she tells me, slightly out of breath, while she runs to a meeting. “There’s this very subtle heartbreak that perhaps people made better life choices than you and their houses are bigger and they are happier.”

The crazy thing is that this friend, at 45, has not only an apartment in the city but a weekend house outside it — one that she bought with earnings from her successful career and enjoys with her partner and kids. She is happy, yet she is undeniably worn out from trying to stay that way in a city where exorbitant wealth — two-nannies-and-a-chauffeur wealth, spring-break-in-St.-Barts wealth — is everywhere. “If you find yourself in your 40s still living in New York, still hustling, still striving, there’s a part of you that is completely beat down and a little bit unwell,” she says. There’s no appropriate audience for this privileged angst beyond a therapist’s office, which is why she’s never talked about it before.


Watching Fleishman was like holding up a mirror to the life they bought into years ago, when they came here to pursue their big dreams, and finally seeing the reality of what that looks like now. Laura, a 46-year-old mom of two in Manhattan who sends her kids to one of the city’s most prestigious private schools, says the show made her think about the choices she’s made not just for herself but for her kids. At their school, “unless you’re a parent who’s a banker with a capital B or a lawyer with a capital L, it’s like you don’t exist,” she says. The go-to bat mitzvah gift of the moment is a Cartier bracelet, for which moms are expected to pitch in for a group present.

Here’s the thing — you don’t have to do this! You don’t have to send your kids to private school, you don’t have to hang it with even richer swells, you can tell people they’re out of their goddamned mind if they expect them to buy their kid a Cartier bracelet. Have some self-respect! If you’re hanging out with people who will treat you as a non-entity if a helicopter isn’t your primary communing method, you can find new friends!

This is my favorite one:

Since leaving New York, Beth has found herself in tears at least once a week. She makes $300,000 a year — more than she’s ever earned in her life — but she’s running out of minutes in the day to squeeze out more dollars. “How do I make the $700,000 that I’m going to need to send her to private school or do the renovation in the attic so I can turn it into the master suite so I can have a tub and so I can have one thing I enjoy in my life?” she says. Her takeaway from the show: “Both avenues are shit. You can stay in New York and climb, climb, climb and never get where you need to go and give yourself a nervous breakdown, or you can move to the suburbs and be like, Who the fuck are these pod people? Neither seems great. Is the secret to it all that we have to just choose a lane and embrace it?”

Whenever someone is making a “my extremely high salary is barely middle class” argument, always give careful scrutiny to what comes after the word “need.” You moved to the suburbs, for Chrissakes, why do you NEED to send the kid to private school.

Having said, that I don’t deny that these are people of considerable psychological interest, which is why Brodesser-Akner’s novel works well and the miniseries, if a little slow-building, does too. It’s quite sad that this woman, with a family and a successful career and a degree of material wealth the vast majority of Americans (let alone people in the world) could only dream about, has currently nothing she can enjoy in her life. And it’s abundantly clear that if they ever finish the renovation she won’t be happy either — she’ll spend her time in the tub not reading and relaxing but thinking of the family down the street with two soaking tubs and a full rack of ivory backscratchers and being consumed with envy and self-inflicted stress all over again.

If this was just a matter of sociological interest, we could just shake our heads and move on. The problem is that the idea that the .1% is the only baseline by which we can measure real wealth has real political impacts — most notably, crucial “moderate” Dem legislators making removing the cap on their SALT deduction their #1 political issue. If you can’t be happy making many multiples of the national median income because you’ve convinced yourself that you “need” a lot of extremely expensive things that you really don’t, that’s too bad. But pay your goddamned taxes!

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