Credit: Ireneusz Skorupa
It's no news that tech has made a lot of people really, really rich. Bill Gates, of course, has long led the list of the richest people in America (in fact, he's the richest guy in the world this year), Google spins off billionaires like an out-of-control carousel, and there's a reason why I've been referring to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg as "Boy Billionaire" for a couple of years.
A look at the just-released list of the Forbes 400 illustrates just how much wealth has been created by the boom in information technology and the Internet. Three of the 10 richest people in the country -- Gates, Oracle's Larry Ellison, and Michael Bloomberg -- made their megafortunes in tech, as did 13 of the top 50 and 48 of the top 400. The hugely disportionate share of tech leaders in the ranks of the super rich speaks volumes about changes in economic mobility: Thanks to the tech industry, there are more young people who are super rich, there are more from middle-class backgrounds, and there are fewer who inherited their money.
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Sure, at a time when economic inequality in modern America has never been as stark, it's easy to resent people like Napster founder Sean Parker (No. 273 with a net worth of $2 billion) who took over a redwood grove for a multi-million-dollar wedding. But antics of bozos like Parker aside, there's a larger point here that speaks to a seismic shift in the upper ranks of the economy.
Despite the perception that the super rich generally come from super-rich families, the truth is quite different. Inherited wealth has become far less important in the last few decades -- and tech is a major driver of that trend.
In 1982, 60 percent of the people on the Forbes 400 list of wealthiest Americans came from wealthy families, compared with 32 percent in 2011, according to a study out of Stanford's Graduate School of Business and the University of Chicago. This year, 31 percent of the richest inherited most of their wealth.
The young, the white, the wealthy
When we think of the super rich, a picture of an old white guy probably comes to mind. To be sure, the list is still overwhelmingly white: The only African American to make it is Oprah Winfrey. And just 48 members of this exclusive club are women, including Hewlett-Packard's Meg Whitman (worth $1.9 billion) and Laurene Jobs (worth $11.7 billion), the widow of Apple's Steve Jobs. The tech industry hasn't done much to change the dominance of white men.
However, there has been a shift in the age demographics. Yes, most of the 400 are well into middle age and beyond, but 20 of the billionaires on the list are under 45, including 11 who struck it rich in technology. As a writer for Forbes put it, they're luckier than the rest: They have the money and many years to spend it.