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Old money is "the inherited wealth of established upper-class families (i.e. gentry, patriciate)" or "a person, family, or lineage possessing inherited wealth." The term typically describes a class of the rich, who have been able to maintain their wealth across multiple generations.
American locations such as the Upper East Side of Manhattan; the Gold Coast of Long Island; Westchester County, NY; Fairfield County, Connecticut; Newport, RI; Boston's Back Bay and Beacon Hill; Weston, MA; and Philadelphia's Main Line are associated with old money. Ironically, these areas' inhabitants that are colloquially described as "old money" are almost always descendants of the people the term "nouveau riche" (new money) was originally coined to describe: nineteenth century industrialists, bankers, and builders. Traditionally, wealth was associated with landowning and these Gilded Age fortunes made money in a new way, hence the term new money. Edith Wharton, among Gilded Age America's greatest chroniclers, referred to industrialists and their ilk as "brazen new money".
Wealth - assets held by an individual or by a household - provides an important dimension of social stratification because it can pass from generation to generation, ensuring that a family's offspring will remain financially stable. Families with "old money" use accumulated assets or savings to bridge interruptions in income, thus guarding against downward social mobility.
"Old money" applies to those of the upper class whose wealth separates them from lower social classes. According to anthropologist W. Lloyd Warner, the upper class in the United States during the 1930s was divided into the upper-upper and the lower-upper classes. The lower-upper were those that did not come from traditionally wealthy families. They earned their money from investments and business rather than inheritance. In contrast to the nouveau riche, the upper-upper class was families viewed as "quasi-aristocratic" and "high-society". These had been rich for generations. They lived off idle inheritances rather than earned wealth.
During the early 20th century, the upper-upper class were seen as more prestigious.
Although many "old money" individuals do not rank as high on the list of Forbes Top 400 richest Americans as they once did, their wealth continues to grow. Many families increased their holdings by investment strategies such as the pooling of resources For example, the Rockefeller family's estimated net worth of $1 billion in the 1930s grew to $8.5 billion by 2000. In 60 years, four of the richest families in the United States increased their combined $2–$4 billion in 1937 to $38 billion without holding large shares in emerging industries.
The Rothschild family established finance houses across Europe from the 18th century and was ennobled by the Habsburg Emperor and Queen Victoria. Throughout the 19th century, they controlled the largest fortune in the world, in today's terms many hundreds of billions, if not in trillions ($US). The family has, at least to some extent, maintained its wealth for over two centuries.
Economists assert that the largest transfer of wealth will be as the older generation leaves wealth to the baby boomers. Inheritance has been estimated to make up 6% of the US GDP each year. The current generation is wealthier than any generation before. This increase in wealth and inheritance indicates a rise of "old money" in American families. Stephen Haseler argues that America is becoming an inheritance culture in which much economic opportunity is from family inheritance and not personal achievement.