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 of an individual to understand the consequences of their actions because of their social status or economic privilege.

Key Takeaways

  • Affluenza is a social condition that presents itself in privileged individuals 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 repercussions 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 can damage relationships and cause depression or anxiety.
  • Social scientists blame the appearance of affluenza on contemporary culture that fetishizes wealth but provides strategies to avoid this social condition.
  • Some symptoms of affluenza are an all-consuming focus on work and earning money and a self-image tied directly to financial status.

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 usually have trouble functioning in everyday 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. As a result, they believe the 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.

Where you live and raise your children also seems to affect social mobility, as well. Most upper-middle-class families live in safe neighborhoods with good schools, all of which may contribute to success later in life.

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 influenced his sentence.

Affluenza in America

Affluenza is the most prevalent in economically viable countries, such as the U.S., which has a reputation as being the home of rugged individualism. However, research has shown that reaching the top tier of income earners is much easier if previous generations of your family were also in the top tier of income earners, including your parents. 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) 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. 

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 their parents than males. One possibility: women simply work less when their husbands make a fairly large salary. 

"The Transmission of Advantage"

There are several 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. They also have the means to put their kids in better schools.

A Johns Hopkins study tracked 790 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.

In addition to education, the transmission of assets and advantages also extends to homeownership, stocks, life insurance, and savings within generations of family members. Generational wealth continues to grow in America. In the past 50 years, 20% of the highest-earning households bring in a larger share of the total income in the U.S., according to a 2020 report from the Pew Research Center.

According to the report, the gap between lower and higher-income households is growing exponentially, and middle-class income is dropping. Families with higher income often pass on their children not only money but also opportunities for building wealth.

Avoiding Affluenza

There is no official diagnosis of affluenza, which means it's not a disorder unto itself but instead 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. Still, 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 bank accounts to save the money they earn or deposit cash gifts.

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, 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.

Teaching your children to be charitable, setting boundaries, and encouraging them to earn their own pocket money, can help prevent a sense of "entitlement" as young adults.

Take gifts as an example: if your child receives a monetary one, have them save three-quarters of it and spend one-quarter. If they had his heart set on buying something with the money, that would 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 your child blows their allowance for the week but 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 duped 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 learn to make wise decisions and avoid hasty ones.

Encourage Your Children to Work

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

Affluenza FAQs

What is the Affluenza Defense?

There have been some court cases where legal counsel mounted an "affluenza defense" to state that their client's social condition afflicted them, causing them not to understand the consequences of their actions. It states a wealthy person isn't criminally liable for their actions. This legal defense has been argued in U.S. courtrooms, and in some cases, the perpetrator received a less severe sentence due to a legal defense citing "affluenza" affliction.

Who or What is the "Affluenza Teen"?

In 2013, Ethan Couch, then age 16, was labeled the "affluenza teen" by the media when he was brought to trial in Texas for involuntary manslaughter. Couch killed four pedestrians while he was driving drunk. The judge sentenced him to 10 years of probation and zero jail time because Couch's attorney successfully argued he didn't understand the consequences of his actions due to his family's wealth. Many members of society and the media were appalled at the judge's decision to allow the "affluenza" defense to be mounted.

Couch did two years of jail time after the court case for violating his parole and fleeing to Mexico. He was released from jail in 2018. Couch was arrested again in 2020 for drug use, and the media continued to call him the "affluenza teen," although he was 22 years old at the time of his drug-related arrest.

What is the Opposite of Affluenza?

The opposite of affluenza could be someone who has lived in poverty and cannot see their way out of the economic challenges facing them. It could mean someone who tries to live a frugal lifestyle and doesn't crave designer items or wealth. The Huff Post reported a story that coined a term called "lowcashism" to be the opposite of affluenza. The 2013 article stated young people suffering from "lowcashism" were trapped in a "vicious cycle of poverty, disenfranchisement and bad choices."