Monday, March 10, 2014

Boomer weasel words: 'high net worth individuals' as euphemism for 'rich people'

For some time, I have been noticing that rich people and the people who sell services to them don't use the phrase "rich people" any more.  Instead, they say "high net worth individuals".  When did this happen and why?

(You might compare this to my previous post regarding "Baby on Board" signs.)

The following graphs are from Google Ngram Viewer, which show relative frequency of word phrases in American English books up to the year 2008. Notice that the phrase "high net worth individuals" appears first around 1980.

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What other socio-demographic terms appeared at that time?  A: "Yuppie", for one.

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But "yuppie" went into decline while "high net worth individuals" was still rising. What other socio-demographic terms appeared in the mid- to late-90s? A: "dot com" millionaires, and "gated community".

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These graphs suggest that the euphemism 'high net worth individuals' is broadly related to the Baby Boomer generation and specifically those segments that rose to the top, economically.  This had three phases -- the Yuppie boom of the 80s, the Dot Com boom of the late 90s, and (not shown) the Finance & Real Estate boom of the mid 2000s.

Did 'high net worth individuals' displace the term 'rich people'?  According to this graph, the answer is "no".  But notice that the use of the term 'net worth' is declining overall during this period.

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Could it be that the euphemism 'high net worth individuals' came to be popular as a defensive response to rising income inequality?  The following graph suggest that the answer to this could be "yes".

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The usage curve for 'income inequality' has two surges -- the first in the 70s and the second in the 90s to 2000s.  Thus it seems that income inequality was a precursor, but also maybe a catalyst after 1990.


The evidence above suggests that by the start of the 80s and the beginning of the Yuppie boom, Baby Boomers were already somewhat sensitive about income inequality.  The term 'high net worth individual' came into use because it sounds cleaner and more clinical than 'rich people'. Through three economic boom periods, the euphemism served as an emotional shield for wealthy Baby Boomers, both to avoid being stigmatized as 'rich people' and also to give them some cultural distance from the uncomfortable issue of income inequality.  Basically, they are weasel words.

Ethically and morally, I have nothing against weasel words. We use them to cover or deflect attention away from things that are embarrassing or are hard to deal with, and thus can be a useful social lubricant, rather like 'white lies'.  I do object to them when they are used to facilitate large scale institutional dysfunction or misbehavior, or worse.  But this isn't one of those cases.

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