Did you see the 25th anniversary issue of the Sunday Times' register of plutocrats? However awful, says Michael Wilson, there's still reassuring news for Generation high50
This weekend we will find out which of the UK’s resident billionaires has the greatest fortune (though the term ‘resident’ is used rather loosely). Will it be last year’s winner, the great man of steel himself, non-British citizen Lakshmi Mittal?
Will the boss of Russia’s biggest iron ore producer, Alisher Usmanov, who is currently in second position, push Lakshmi off his throne?
Or will the Russian with the most expensive footballers in the kingdom manage to climb to the top of this league?
On Sunday, The Sunday Times, amid much celebration – for this is a much-hyped 25th birthday – will reveal its Rich List for 2013. And no doubt we’ll all be tempted to pore over it, wondering how destiny and/or diligence (and/or dastardliness) allowed those listed to have so, so much more moolah than us.
But when mulling over that gulf, we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves, because Brits who were born in the Fifties and early Sixties are really doing pretty well compared to most of their compatriots.
The 50-plusses hold 80 per cent of the wealth in the UK, and Generation high50 has twice as much disposable income as any other demographic.
The over-50s are more likely than any other group to own their own homes; to succeed when starting their own businesses; to run two cars; the list goes on.
Ten years ago, the average household income among the so-called ABs in this group was £76,000, with 40 per cent of them on more than £50k a year each. Even today, 80 per cent of 50-plusses own houses with three or more bedrooms; and half of them own their homes outright.
But we have other riches, besides wealth. Thanks to modern medicine and lifestyle choices, we happy few (million) are also in better health than ever before.
Meanwhile, with our kids leaving home – or at least becoming more domesticated – we have much more ‘me’ time than we did as frazzled 40-somethings. (That explains why this group is ‘over-indexed’ by 30 per cent against the national average when it comes to taking holidays.)
If we have the leisure, then, why shouldn’t we leaf through the Sunday Times’ register of modern Midases? (After all, we can always go cycling to our yacht on another weekend.)
Well, because it’s such a waste of time. OK, it’s a good bit of plutocratic porn. But who really cares for the strutting, swinging dicks of the Square Mile, or the grisly oligarchs of the Soviet Union’s rubble? Why do we wish to stare across the chasm between us and those with unimaginable fortunes?
Are we searching for inspiration? I seriously doubt whether any of those listed will have been asked by Wapping’s finest about the secrets of making a mint.
I’ve interviewed many a billionaire. Most of them have a mild attention deficit disorder for anyone less rich than themselves, and most have the social skills of a limpet.
They spend more time in their private jets than they do at home, and members of their inflight staff are better known to them than their own families.
Is it about envy? I wasn’t aware that as a nation we like success. Our tall poppies too often lose their heads to our national habit of writing off our winners.
Most of all, though, the Rich List can never deliver the true fortunes of its constituents. It’s possible to value their assets approximately, and to investigate their international accounts (if you can get at them).
But all their bank statements are private. Almost impenetrable. Not to mention the other more naughty places where these super-elites have stashed their off-balance-sheet stuff.
So, if you need to know how these trans-global titans really add up, The Sunday Times Rich List is not going to deliver.
But maybe you do have a prurient interest in these rankers, and will spend much of Sunday running an anxious finger down the list, noting where the Duke of Westminster is this year and who has overtaken Sir Paul McCartney.
Maybe you will marvel at which other names you can recognise from the roll of riches, in between the Schroders, the Hambros, the Hoares – and probably Bob Diamond. (Plus the Russians, of course.)
But why? I still don’t get it. Eventually, in researching this article, I had to submit to the task of Googling: “Why do people like lists?’”. But I still got nothing.
Then I tried to think of the last list that had fascinated me. It took another glass of wine, and then it came to me.
It’s the distant past. I’m nine, standing on the platform at York railway station – in an anorak, with a packed lunch – and I’m taking down engine numbers. I am enraptured by the steaming, deep-chested locomotives, whose wheels paw the tracks.
This is, in my defence, when anoraks were worn by outward-bound types, rather than those who know too much about electric multiple units on South West Trains.
Nonetheless – while I certainly breathed every bit of steamy awe that the magnificent engines created – at the end of the platform, it was always about jotting down the numbers and making a list. It was trainspotting.
And curiously, so it is with the man behind The Sunday Times Rich List, former journalist Philip Beresford. (That should be Doctor Philip Beresford, since he achieved a PhD with his study of the modern IRA.)
I’m guessing here, but after a presumably dismal trudge through the history of a particularly forlorn and grubby bunch of no-hopers, researching the wealthy must have come as quite a treat.
But the fact remains: Dr B is a made-to-measure anorak. Even if his subjects are as rich as Crassus, Croesus or Khodorkovsky, he’s there with the little notebook, possibly resting on a plastic box of sandwiches.
I’m indebted to a 2009 article in the Daily Telegraph for this insight into him: “The 59-year-old said his experiences as a trainspotter had equipped him with the unique combination of obsessiveness and dogged commitment to research needed to complete the task.
“He said he had no plans to retire, saying he would probably end up being buried with the list.
“[He said:] ‘The only secret I have is I’m like a trainspotter; I’m a rich-spotter, and instead of collecting castle-class locomotives, I’m collecting millionaires’.”
I beg to differ with his self-assessment. In fact, Dr B is a poor-spotter – as are all of us who bother to read the list.
Our riches will never match those of the super wealthy. And the Rich List will never come close to the truth of what these people are actually worth.
In the end, it’s a sad numbers game, in which, actually, we – that’s Generation high50 – is doing rather well.