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Many Dislike Tech Billionaires, but Envy Them

According to a survey, 37% of Americans think billionaires are terrible role models, and 49% said they have overall negative feelings towards them. And the heat is felt most prominently by the big-name tech billionaires like Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, and Jeff Bezos.

But despite the negative feelings, people still admire and look up to some of these individual figures. And it’s not because of just their financial success; a 2021 study found that people who stand against a class of extremely wealthy people still tend to admire individual billionaires like Elon Musk and Bill Gates.

Margaret O’Mara, a professor of history at the University of Washington, says “The secret of Silicon Valley has been the storytelling.” She describes intense admiration of tech billionaires as kind of “a religion of entrepreneurship.” With the lack of presence of other role models and declining faith in other institutions like the government or churches or even science, people want to find a myth to believe in that will give them comfort.

When you have these really exciting stories of the startup company in your dorm room or garage that then becomes this trillion-dollar company, this exciting rags to riches story really fits into an American narrative that predates Silicon Valley. Those stories are exceptional, to be clear, but I think the fault is presuming that anyone can do this.

Another story within the tech billionaire narrative that appeals to masses is that of disruption. O’Mara said, “This is a nation founded on revolution, so being a rebel, not bowing to authority and being your own boss is kind of cool.”

Richard R. John, professor of business history and journalism at Columbia University calls the hype surrounding tech billionaires a cult of personality. He says:

A cult of personality is the deliberate glorification of a specific public figure. Throughout history, cult of personality hype of billionaire figures has usually been propagated through journalists and news media. But with the founding of social media, it grew massively through its unprecedented reach. It’s no longer regional, it’s now national and even international.

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