Silicon Valley's 'affluenza' epidemic

They have the big cars, the big houses and the big share options. So why are California's Net millionaires having trouble being one big, happy family?
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The Independent Online

A group of Silicon Valley's top earners were discussing their goals for the year. It was a soul-baring session to help parents and their children tighten the human bonds that some people feel are weakening in the frenzied Information Age. Among the last to be heard was an 11-year-old boy. "My goal," he said, "is to simplify my life."

No one looked surprised; some of the other children nodded. In a country where an estimated 60 new millionaires are made every day, it is not only grown-ups who are feeling the effects of too much, too soon. The so-called "affluenza syndrome" is also taking its toll on the children of America's e-elite. In many cases, they are struggling as hard as their parents to keep their priorities in order.

The meeting was an "Evening at the Hearth", a back-to-basics programme for disillusioned entrepreneurs and their mixed-up offspring. They come here to discuss the peculiar challenges and stresses of being extremely rich. The course is run by the Child and Family Institute in Menlo Park, California. The pressures that these children feel are passed on from their hard-working parents - mostly Stanford University graduates in their thirties - who live by the motto that either you move forward or you fall back.

Some internet moguls are becoming so rich, so fast, so young, that the psychological stresses they face are often as big as their bank balances. Money makes them feel guilty and nervous. And they fret about the impact of their massive wealth on their children. But whatever got them on the treadmill in the first place - compounded by the fear of losing what landed unexpectedly in their laps - makes it impossible for some to get off it. They continue to work absurdly long hours and spend days away from home on business, leaving their children to cope with the challenges of living in a fast-paced, competitive world.

"There's a loud voice in Silicon Valley that says, 'If you don't keep up, your children won't be successful'," says Chris Goodrich, a co-founder of the Child and Family Institute, which has grown from six to 300 families since it opened in 1986. "Everything here is on such a competitive level that parents tend to over-provide because they're afraid of their children falling behind. They arrange activities for them seven days a week from 9am until 9pm."

Some say the "sudden wealth syndrome" is more damaging than any computer virus. What will be its effect on Silicon Valley's children? According to Goodrich, the mansions, the cars and the holidays in Mustique have not made their parents any happier. "It will never be enough," she says. "People don't realise that they're on that treadmill or what they're sacrificing to make that happen, until it's too late. That's why they want something different for their children."

Working parents keep their Palm Pilots clear for the monthly tea parties at the Child and Family Institute. Some have been going for four years. Everybody listens to a story - which is invariably interrupted by the trill of a mobile phone - then the parents head off to a quiet corner to have tea with their children alone. They need to make the commitment to a time and place if they are going to create space in their busy schedules for their children, Goodrich explains. "But the one plus to wealth is that they can arrange their own schedule, because they're the head of the company."

Some of the moral issues surrounding money are discussed in Eric Bloom's economics classes at Palo Alto Senior High. When the 35-year-old teacher recently asked his students to draw up a list of things that they could not live without, most of them put pagers and cars somewhere near the top. Outside his classroom, the school car park is filled with Saabs, BMWs and Porches belonging to the students - the beat-up Toyotas belong to the teachers. "There's more of an abundance of wealth here than ever," says Bloom, who grew up in Palo Alto.

"I try to focus students on the idea that we're living in this strange bubble in the US - strange even in this county. There are relatively poor areas just across the highway." Bloom realised the culture had shifted when he began noticing that some students were becoming bored playing simulated stocks in class; they had their own real ones. Hans Pang, a 17-year-old in Bloom's class, is already on course to making his first million. Three years ago, a friend's father offered him a summer job after hearing about his computer wizardry. Pang impressed his employer so much that he was offered employee stock options instead of a salary when the company went public last year. His shares are now worth $75,000 - on paper, as Bloom keeps reminding him.

As a father and a techie, Craig Forman is aware of the pressures that children of wealthy parents in the e-age face. His website, myprimetime.com, offers advice to time-starved baby boomers on everything from how to run a small business to feeling more optimistic. There is also a quiz to test how happy you are. Every Sunday evening, Forman, his wife Cecile, and their seven-year-old son Elliot sit around their kitchen table at their home in San Francisco to discuss the details of the week ahead. "Our family meetings are like my company's project update sessions," he says. "They really matter and I won't let anything interrupt them."

Forman's wife, a sculptor, works from home. While she looks after Elliot, he is frequently out of town on business and his weekends are usually taken up with work.

Their weekly get-togethers are his way of making sure that the family's priorities do not get lost in the frenzy of Silicon Valley's start-up culture. "It's an anchor for all three of us," he says. It also provides Craig Forman with an opportunity to teach Elliot about business and what he does at work.

"This whole question of kids and money is a live one," says Forman, who gives his son a weekly allowance. "We found that Elliot wasn't saving well, so we created a matching programme where we would match what he saved over a certain period. That worked well."

The message that Forman and Goodrich want to send out is that family time is special. Chris Goodrich says: "We don't know how important it is until it's gone."

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