I’ve encounted this euphemism for “rich people” at least five times this week. It’s not exactly new; I’ve heard it occasionally for the last few years. But I don’t know where it came from, or how long it’s been gaining traction around the memosphere.
This morning’s appearance came in a Variety article about Radar’s Ted Field acquiring roughly $600 million in financing:
The financial partners in Radar’s fund are a combination of equity financiers and high net-worth individuals, including JP Morgan & Co., D.E. Shaw & Co., Kevin Flynn, the Rothman family, Cardinal Growth, GE Capital, US Bank, CIT and Mercantile Bank.
Kevin Flynn is an individual. The Rothman family presumably counts — though technically, they’re not an individual. You or I would just call them rich, wealthy or loaded. So why doesn’t Variety?
My theory is that super-rich people are actually a bit embarrassed by their vast wealth. “High net-worth individual” is a way of obfuscating and distracting from the dollar signs. Don’t judge me; I have a condition. It’s scientific. It’s treatable: “Oh, I’m not rich. I just have a high net worth.”
To refer back to the old-school SAT analogies:
wealth:: high net worth
My friend Chuck is a VP at a bank that specializes in high net-worth individuals. (Which, to be fair, makes a lot more sense than banking for the poor and indigent.) When I ask him about his job, Chuck uses the HNWI term a lot, generally to protect the anonymity of his clients. Hearing him talk about it, one realizes that vast wealth is like a supertanker; it’s actually kind of a pain in the ass to move it around.
The only time it gets awkward with Chuck is when he refers to, “high net-worth individuals such as yourself.” I can never tell if he’s being generous or deluded. My net worth is high compared with, say, a Kentucky coal miner. But I’m not looking for places to park $600 million. “High” is clearly a relative term.
Which leads to my second hunch: “high net-worth individual” was coined because there’s a vast realm between millionaires and billionaires, and you need something to call these people.
The film industry increasingly calls them partners, because they’re bankrolling many of the super-budgeted movies filling our megaplexes. But I wonder if we’ve lost something by reducing our tycoons and barons to mere high net-worth individuals. Great wealth is supposed to invoke romance, intrigue and familial drama, not spreadsheets and hedge funds. Just by giving it a new term, they’ve taken away half the reason to be rich.