So You Want to Be a Billionaire?

Ian Hellström | 1 May 2021 | 2 min read

Then you’d better think about your background.

Although the Forbes 400 list proudly proclaims that 70% of billionaires amassed their fortunes from nothing, reality is quite different.

In fact, the majority of billionaires are not entirely self-made but mostly products of privilege and dumb luck.

Here is the breakdown of the Forbes 400 billionaires:

  • 35% of individuals came from a lower- or middle-class background.
  • 22% of individuals had opportunities that gave them an advantage, such as an upper-class background, inherited less than $1 million, or received some start-up capital from a family member.
  • 11.5% inherited a medium-sized business or wealth of more than $1 million or received substantial start-up capital for a business from a family member.
  • 7% inherited wealth in excess of $50 million or a large and prosperous company.
  • 21.25% inherited sufficient wealth to make the Forbes 400 list.

Yes, 35% sounds pretty decent for the idea of the hustle as a possible road to riches, but the odds are against most people. 95% of the population comes from a lower- or middle-class background. The figure 35% is also an upper bound as per the researchers’ rules of giving people the benefit of the doubt and putting them in the lowest category when lacking in biographical details.

Let’s do a quick calculation:

  • 35% of 400 billionaires amounts to 140 individuals.
  • 95% of the US population is 316m people.

Statistically, anyone’s chances from a lower- or middle-class background are 140 in 316m or 1 in 2.3m. My guess is that those odds become much worse if you are a woman, a person of colour, disabled, or generally not white and male.

For the top-5%, the odds of becoming billionaires are 13x better than for regular schmoes. For every successful hustler there are 2.3m who failed or simply refused to hustle because they have a life and family they intended to keep.

Note that there are actually more than 700 billionaires in the United States alone. The in-depth analysis from United for a Fair Economy was based on the Forbes 400 list, which is why I restrict the back-of-the-envelope calculations to that group of individuals. Overall, that may or may not improve the odds for common people to join the ranks of massive cash stockpilers.

Quite frankly, becoming billionaire is an asinine career goal: to accumulate more wealth than can possibly be spent in a lifetime. The world does not become a better place for the rest of us with yet another money hoarder. And you don’t need a Lamborghini on a private yacht to prove anything except bad taste and a disdain for the environment.

Still, now you know the odds are stacked against you.