New young faces join the billionaires’ club

Cash to splash: Three of the world’s youngest billionaires.

Can we learn anything useful from the latest list of billionaires? It now runs to thousands of people, one of them still a teenager – but the editor who oversees it is worried.

Austin Russell’s brilliance was clear from the start. At two, he memorised the periodic table. At 13, he patented his first invention: a water-recycling system for sprinklers. Geniuses, however, do not always thrive in the business world, so there was some anxiety when he dropped out of university. It proved unfounded: last December, aged 25, he became the world’s youngest self-made billionaire.

The annual Forbes list of billionaires brims with extraordinary facts and figures. There are no great surprises at the top of it: Jeff Bezos is number one, with a fortune of $177bn, followed by Elon Musk, Bernard Arnault and his family, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. But it reveals some fascinating trends, not all of which are encouraging.

Above all it shows that, while so many people have been left poorer by the pandemic, the world’s richest have prospered: an amazing 86% are richer than they were a year ago. Their combined wealth is put at $13.1trn, compared to $8trn in 2020.

There are now 2,755 billionaires – 660 more than on the last Forbes list. Of those, 493 had never appeared on it before, indicating that a new billionaire is emerging every 17 hours.

The youngest billionaire is an 18-year-old German, Kevin David Lehmann, who has been given a stake in his father’s drugstore empire. In all there are 10 under the age of 30 – but only four of them made their fortunes rather than inheriting them. Sam Bankman-Fried has amassed $8.7bn from crypto trading; Austin Russell’s company, Luminar, makes sensors for self-driving cars; Andy Fang and Stanley Tang founded the US food-delivery company DoorDash.

At 24, Alexandra Andresen – a Norwegian dressage champion – is the youngest woman on the list thanks to her father’s investment company. The youngest self-made female billionaire is 31-year-old Whitney Wolfe Herd, who created the dating app, Bumble, and is now worth $1.3bn.

The number of women on the list is relatively small – 328. But that is a third more than last year, and on average they are richer than the men. Their combined wealth of $1.5trn is 60% up on 2020.

Here again, though, family wealth is the dominant factor. The richest woman of all – and the twelfth richest person in the world – is Françoise Bettencourt Meyers, who inherited the L’Oréal cosmetic and fashion empire.

Forty of the new billionaires owe their status to the pandemic. Li Jianquan, whose Hong Kong company makes masks, protective overalls and gowns, has a $6.8bn fortune. Stéphane Bancel, the head of the vaccine manufacturer Moderna, is worth $4.3bn.

According to the editor of Forbes, Randall Lane, “These figures will engender endless amounts of consternation, most of it justified. There’s no getting around a collective $5trn wealth surge during a pandemic, when most of the world felt scared, sick, besieged… Yawning economic disparity poses arguably the greatest threat to modern social order.”

Can we learn anything useful from the latest list of billionaires?

Lessons of lucre

Some say, no. These people are so different from the rest of us that they might as well come from another planet: what an ordinary person earns in a lifetime – around $2.7m in the US – is peanuts to them. Many of them have inherited wealth, so their experiences will be completely irrelevant to anyone who has not been handed a fortune on a plate.

Others point out that all of the top 10 billionaires made their own fortunes, and six of those work in technology – so it is perfectly possible to join them if you have drive and initiative, and ideally a scientific mind. But the lesson for all of us is that the gulf between the richest and poorest is growing ever larger – and as Randall Lane warns, that is not a good thing for society.

You Decide

  1. Do we have a right to criticise what other people choose to spend their money on?
  2. Would it be helpful to society if everyone was obliged to reveal their income?

Activities

  1. Imagine that you have $1bn to divide between 10 good causes. Make a chart showing how much you would give to each of them.
  2. Write a profile for Forbes about an imaginary person who has become a billionaire overnight.

Some People Say...

“Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose.”

Bill Gates (1955 – ), American businessman and philanthropist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that while the US has the largest number of billionaires, a supposedly Communist country – China – is catching up fast, with 698 to America’s 724. There are already more billionaires in Beijing than in New York. China’s 400 richest people have seen their total wealth increase by 64% over the last year, to $2.11trn. Of the 493 new billionaires, 210 are from China and Hong Kong.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around how far the rest of society benefits from this wealth. President Trump cut US taxes, arguing that this would lead companies to hire more people and pay higher wages. But a recent report by the London School of Economics concluded that tax cuts for the rich failed to boost employment and economic growth. Some billionaires, such as Bill Gates, have given away a large proportion of their wealth, but Elon Musk has given just 0.2% to his own charitable foundation.

Word Watch

Periodic table
A list of the chemical elements arranged according to their atomic number.
Forbes list
The American business magazine bases the list on estimates of people’s wealth. But it may be that some of the world’s richest do not appear on it because they are so skilled at hiding their money. President Putin is thought to be among them.
Billionaires
A billion dollars is $1,000,000,000 – which is why billionaires are sometimes referred to as “the three-comma club”.
Jeff Bezos
This is the fourth time in a row that he has been top of the list. His company, Amazon, has done particularly well during the pandemic, with its value rising by 70%.
Elon Musk
A South African-born entrepreneur whose companies have included the online payment service PayPal and the electric-car company Tesla.
Bernard Arnault
A French businessman and art collector who owns luxury brands including Marc Jacobs and DKNY.
$13.1trn
One trillion is 1,000 billion.
Crypto trading
Trading in crypto currencies such as Bitcoin.
Dressage
A sport in which highly trained horses are put through elaborate manoeuvres.
Consternation
A feeling of anxiety, dismay or slight anger.

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