Thursday, July 18, 2024

The toxic sibling income gap

It is a story as old as humankind: People raised in the same home, at the same time, by the same parents, who as adults land in vastly different financial circumstances.

The same forces that have increasingly separated the richest people from everyone else are dividing brothers and sisters, too. Gaborone based clinical psychologist, Bame Mophuting says, money can become just another arena for  competition, particularly among adult siblings who choose different career paths and have varying degrees of success in their chosen field.”

This gives rise to a mix of often conflicting emotions — jealousy and resentment, disappointment and distance, but also frequently understanding and respect. There are families, maybe even our own, in which members are not in the same tax bracket and live quite differently. But when it comes to economic inequality this is not something that is spoken about very much, maybe because it does not quite fit with how people like to imagine families—as cohesive units in which members share from the same pot of resources.

Mophuting says, “siblings are naturally competitive. Starting from childhood, they have had to compete for resources — their parents’ time, affection and attention. Money can become just another arena for competition, particularly among adult siblings who choose different career paths and have varying degrees of success in their chosen field. people feel generally worse about themselves the more they feel they earn less and have lower social rank than those around them. We are acutely sensitive to slight differences of status, and the wider the income gap grows, the more people experience relative deprivation, even if by objective measures they have more than enough.”

Although lately, there seem to be more awareness and interest in exploring what monetary differences between family members can look and feel like. Not many people have a super-wealthy sibling. Most may very well, though, have a sibling who makes significantly more or less money than their sibling. Sibling relationships are life-spanning and carry important consequences for health and well-being. Inevitably, though, in a society in which money matters so much, economic differences can challenge these relationships. The main issue caused by wealth earning gaps between siblings is that it can be seen as a measure of success. It can be seen as a decider as to who is successful and who is less successful or not successful at all. This can play into old family dynamics and can bring up feelings relating to positioning, competition, sibling rivalry and favouritism.

Senior Social Work lecturer at the University of Botswana, Poloko Ntshwarang says, “It breeds first envy or resentment, and then shame. When many people feel relatively deprived, and a few feel on top, not only do real interests diverge, but interpersonal tensions increase. The sibling with children in private school, and the one who can’t afford it no longer have the same conversations. Some families, especially those with cross-class siblings, internalize the Black Sheep and the Golden Child, incorporating them into their family histories. When this happens, these destructive ideas become part of how siblings see themselves and relate to each other. The Black Sheep and the Golden Child are deeply damaging myths. Regardless of whether they are of a vilifying or glorifying nature, these myths accentuate the exceptionalism of one child, setting them apart and creating barriers to empathy and understanding between siblings and family members.”

The lower earning sibling may feel insecure, inadequate and ashamed of the gap, it can even bring up shame, embarrassment and the need to protect the higher earning sibling if parents or friends react negatively to their prosperity. Essentially, the biggest issue is it causes a reflection of value as indicated by earnings, affecting confidence and self-image. A sibling rivalry will likely feel heightened if they are in similar lines of work and/or close in age.

From the perspective of an outsider, siblings would have had the same advantages and disadvantages growing up, been influenced by the same parents, and had access to the same financial and academic resources. Therefore, when one sibling finds more financial success, people can make assumptions about intelligence and work ethic. Most siblings begin adulthood at the same financial starting point, so it is hard not to be comparative. If one does ‘better’ than another, the difference is magnified because it can’t be attributed to some natural advantage one person had over the other, Inevitability, there becomes inequality as they become adults through differences in talent, hard work, and luck.

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