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Wealth Is an Equal Opportunity Game

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Popular myth today asserts the belief that CEOs are earning outrageous amounts. But that’s a narrow view. Let’s look at the facts.

It’s true that the best CEOs among us are making far more money today than they did 50 years ago. It’s a global market now, and opportunities are much larger for everyone today. In 2020, a CEO at one of the top 350 firms in the U.S. was paid on average $24.2 million, including all options that were redeemed in that year.

However, the best actors, musicians, and athletes earned more — much more. In 2021 the average pay for a top 10 actor was $29 million, a 10 top musician $230 million, and a top 50 athlete $280 million! The career choice and sacrifice required to become a top actor, musician, athlete, or entrepreneur in society leads to very few making it all the way. Nobody gets to the top for free. However, the opportunity is there for everyone. 

It helps if your parents are already established. In sports, Brett Hull was Bobby Hull’s son, Stephen Curry is Dell Curry’s son, and Payton and Eli Manning were Archie Manning’s boys. It happens for actors, as well. Dakota Johnson’s parents were Don Johnson and Melanie Griffiths, Emilio Estevez and Charlie Sheen’s father is Martin Sheen, Angelina Jolie’s father is Jon Voight are both are Oscar winners. Music can also be a family business. Jakob Dylan followed his father’s footsteps, as did Carnie and Wendy Wilson, and Julian and Sean Lennon.

“Riches are not an end of life but an instrument of life.” – Henry Ward Beecher

You can see a pattern here. What we’re exposed to growing up can influence possibilities and opportunities for us as adults. My uncle was a physician and so are two of his children, and so, too, are some of their children. Many children follow in their parents’ footsteps, but it’s the exception, not the rule.  

Most CEOs, entrepreneurs, actors, musicians and athletes who made it to the top didn’t come from a privileged family. In fact, coming from privilege can be a burden to the next generation. For a young adult aged 26 with upper-middle-class parents, the odds of being diagnosed with an addiction to drugs or alcohol are two-to-three times higher than national rates in the United States.   

The truth is, anyone can grow up to be a millionaire or even a billionaire. In my native Canada, two-thirds of our millionaires are self-made. In fact, nearly half were either immigrants or first-generation Canadians. According to Forbes, 70 percent of the 400 wealthiest people in America made their money from scratch in their lifetime. In doing so, they created a lot of prosperity for those around them.    

It’s also true for other people who have worked hard to parlay their talent to the top of their profession. Sean Combs is worth $885 million in 2021. Coming from Harlem, he first earned money to buy sneakers on a paper route. LeBron James lived with four generations of his family in a single home near downtown Akron. Now he’s worth $500 million. J.K. Rowling, now a billionaire, was raising a daughter on public assistance while writing the first Harry Potter book in 1994. 

Who is helping to increase the wealth of these CEOs, athletes, actors, musicians and celebrities? You are — and you’re getting value in return. Every time you make a call on your iPhone, search for a place to eat on Google, post a picture of your dog on Instagram, watch the Super Bowl, or listen to a hit song on Spotify you’re enjoying the work of talented and hardworking people. You even helped the top 10 YouTubers average more than $30 million each in 2021.   

It isn’t a crime to earn money in exchange for value. It’s everywhere in society, and what the wealthy earn helps the pie to grow, not shrink. On average, people were many times poorer in the past than we are today. If we compare the economic prosperity of every region today with any earlier times, we see that each is richer than ever before in its history.  

The opportunity to become better at what you do exists for everyone. For a few, they’ll go all the way to becoming the best among us. We should celebrate the work and effort they put into their success, and celebrate, as well, how far we’ve come across all classes. 

Derek Bullen is Founder and CEO of S.i. Systems, one of the largest professional services companies in Canada, with thousands of information technology consultants working on projects for blue-chip corporations and government agencies across Canada. His new book is In Defence of Wealth: A Modest Rebuttal to the Charge the Rich Are Bad for Society (Barlow Books, 2022), and previously published High Velocity, a book to help new IT professionals develop their soft business skills. Learn more at bullenbooks.com.

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