The richest Florentine families today were already at the top of the socioeconomic ladder nearly 600 years ago, according to a recent study by the Bank of Italy. And research by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development shows that in many European countries, not only wealth and income but even occupations tend to be “sticky,” passed on from generation to generation.
More than a third of Italy’s richest people inherited their fortunes according to a 2014 study of the world’s billionaires by the Peterson Institute for International Economics. Germany may be prone to even more concentrations of inherited wealth, research shows. Germany has the highest share of inheritor-billionaires among developed economies, at 65 per cent. Overall, heirs and heiresses make up about half of western Europe’s billionaires.
“In hardly any other country does social origin influence one’s income as much as in Germany,” wrote Marcel Fratzscher, head of the Berlin-based German Institute for Economic Research, in a recent book. “The richest citizens are also those with the highest income. For to everyone who has, more shall be given.” Germany’s high share of family wealth is in part a consequence of a tax system that until this year allowed family-owned businesses (including a large proportion of the medium-sized companies that are the backbone of its economy) to pass on financial assets while paying almost no estate tax.