Why are we so outraged by nepo babies? This is a question of particular interest to nepotism babies themselves who, since a recent New York magazine article on the children given a leg-up by their famous parents, have been attracting a level of opprobrium they are finding both unnecessary and unfair. After all, they say, they might get a foot in the door, but then they have to work twice as hard and be twice as good or at least prove themselves equal to the task. Kaia Gerber, the model daughter of Cindy Crawford, was last week the latest to make a variation on this point, which has been repeated so many times by nepo babies down the decades that it has become a sort of proverb.
Let’s first take issue with this maxim. It’s just not true. The sons and daughters of the famous are helped all the way along. The forces that propel them into their first job – members of the industry wanting to please their parents – are still present at the second and the third. No one sacks or under-promotes the child of someone very important if it can possibly be helped: why risk torpedoing your own career? Instead, thresholds are lowered, sometimes literally (Lily-Rose Depp, daughter of Johnny, is just 5ft 3in but a stupendously successful model). And far from having to work extra hard to prove themselves, nepo babies have the scope to fail upwards, repeatedly. Björk’s daughter, Ísadóra, had her big break at 17 with the film The Northman, which flopped. Yet she signed a major modelling contract just two months later. Give a nepo baby a second or third chance and earn even more gratitude from those influential parents.
Then, too, they are protected from many of the nasty obstacles their peers may have to deal with. No one sane bullies or harasses a nepo baby or drives them from an industry for all but the most heinous of crimes. These lucky children can afford to stray confidently outside the usual parameters of behaviour, which is a risk but in the arts can be an advantage. Ultimate industry baby Dakota Johnson (daughter of Don, and Melanie Griffith) deftly undermined Ellen DeGeneres on her own show, which boosted Johnson’s career but would have been an insane move for a less connected actor. In media, nepo babies can edge closer to the unsayable – all the better for web traffic – and stay in the game.
OK, but who cares if a few sons and daughters get to have better careers, so long as they meet required standards? Does it really affect anything if it is Gwyneth Paltrow’s daughter, Apple Martin, rather than another equally pretty girl, who gets the job? Why are we so exercised about nepo babies?
Well, our outsize reaction may say something about the effect unfair reward systems have on us, wherever they show up. It turns out they are toxic. Reams of research and stacks of business books tell us that knocking incentives even slightly out of alignment with achievement has a terrible effect on organisations – plunging workers into a kind of exhausted cynicism. Just one conspicuous instance of nepotism can infect an entire company, sending job satisfaction rolling downhill, along with productivity. Top employees leave and others stop bothering to compete. And what is true for companies is true for industries at large, or even societies. Watching the children of the famous triumphantly straddle the arts is rather like watching Gavin Williamson get knighted or City bosses awarding themselves bonuses in a mediocre year. If the world’s glittering prizes have so little to do with performance, what’s the point in even trying?
Isn’t it natural that parents want to help their children? Yes, and that’s the problem. Nepotism is hard to root out, as you are fighting against one of the strongest human instincts: parents devote lives and fortunes to giving their sprogs even the tiniest of head starts. (The actor Felicity Huffman risked – and got – jail to give her daughter an edge in college admissions.) It would be strange if celebrity parents weren’t calling in favours to get their son to casting. And in jobs where ability is rather subjective and connections are everything, it is entirely rational for decision-makers to give jobs to relatives of the famous. Cast a nepo baby in your play and their parents might come to opening night, tell their friends to support it, or do you a personal favour later.
In fact, incentives all tend to align towards nepotism. Until the late 1800s most jobs were simply inherited – and the top end of occupations such as sports and politics thick with the sons of the wealthy and connected. As Zoë Kravitz, daughter of Lenny, recently told GQ: “It’s completely normal for people to be in the family business. It’s literally where last names came from. You were a blacksmith if your family was, like, the Black family.”
She’s right, nepotism is completely normal. Which is what makes the meritocracies of the past century or so such an astonishing achievement. Societies where talent can rise to the top are wonderful exceptions within the broad sweep of history, but hard fought and more fragile than we might imagine. We sense this, which is perhaps why we react so strongly to the idea of inherited actors and politicians. Nepo babies are bad for all of us.
• Martha Gill is a political journalist and former lobby correspondent
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