Born to success: Are famous parents the ultimate career shortcut?

Aug 19, 2023
Nepo babies are an enduring – and totally understandable - part of the human story. Source: Getty

Shortened from nepotism baby, the term nepo baby refers to the child of an influential individual or celebrity, who secures a lucrative career or prestigious position riding on the coattails of and/or financed by wealthy parents. The term is most prominently used to describe the plethora of high-profile showbiz nepo babies currently populating our screens.  

Showbiz nepo babies include Kate Hudson (daughter of Goldie Hawn), Mylie Cyrus (daughter of Billy Ray Cyrus), Lilly Allen (daughter of actor Keith Allen and his film producer wife Alison Owen), Dakota Johnson (daughter of actors Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith), Willow and Jaden Smith (children of actor Will Smith and wife Jada Pinkett Smith), Lily Rose Depp (daughter of Johnny Depp), Maggie and Jake Gyllenhaal (children of screenwriter Naomi Gyllenhaal and director Stephen Gyllenhaal) and Brooklyn Beckham (son of celebrity couple David and Victoria Beckham).  

There are far too many nepo babies in Hollywood to list them all and I have not mentioned families, such as the Skarsgårds (Stellan Skarsgård, an acclaimed Swedish actor, has eight sons, who are also successful actors) and the Redgraves (a British acting dynasty spanning five generations), where multiple members have been able to bask in the limelight.

Needless to say, Australia has its fair share of nepo babies, too. Let’s start with James Packer (the billionaire great grandson of Robert Clyde Packer) who relinquished control of his family’s media empire in 2008. Then there’s Billi Fitzsimons, the daughter of journalists Lisa Wilkinson and Peter FitzSimons, who was appointed the editor of The Daily Aus (a news website) before her 25th birthday.

Another is Alice Englert, actor, screen writer and director, who also happens to be the daughter of Oscar-winning filmmaker, Jane Campion. At 28 years old, Englert’s first full-length feature film, Bad Behaviour made its debut at the Sundance Film Festival this year. Englert recently described her introduction to acting as “a severe case of nepotism”.   

Jason Donovan (Terrence Donovan’s son), Miranda Otto (Barry Otto’s daughter), Deni Hines (Marcia Hines’ daughter) and The Kid Leroi (son of a music producer and a talent manager/record label founder/music executive) can also be added to the list.  There are many more, but you get the picture, I am sure. 

Having emerged on Twitter in 2022, the term nepo baby is sparkling fresh, but nepo babies have been around forever. The current focus has simply raised our consciousness about how the age-old transition of power and influence is passed from one privileged generation to the next.

In terms of the distribution of wealth and power, our world is not such a different place from the one that was once ruled by hereditary dynasties. Sovereign and aristocratic dynasties no longer dominate. Wealthy capitalists now control the financial purse strings of the world and they are as reluctant to see a more equitable distribution of the world’s resources as ever were the rich and powerful who came before them.  

Family-controlled businesses make up 19 per cent of the companies in the Fortune Global 500, which tracks the sales of the world’s largest firms. Thus, nepo babies are thriving and, of course, the proliferation of showbiz nepo babies is a constant reminder that success often relies on who you are, rather than what you can do. 

That is not to say that showbiz nepo babies don’t have talent. Talented parents can produce equally talented children, although not always. However, a talented (or not so talented) showbiz nepo baby has a treasure chest of advantages. These include lifelong exposure, experience and opportunities within the sector and ‘insider’ access to a supportive network of industry professionals.

What is more, showbiz nepo babies can apply and present for roles with extensive resumes and established reputations. The best that an equally talented, but unconnected newcomer can hope for is a lucky break. 

Intergenerational succession is underpinned by nepo babies. Founders pass the keys to their kingdoms, farms or businesses to their descendants, who pass them on to theirs, and so on. Call them heirs, descendants or nepo babies, the result is the same.

Nepo babies are an enduring – and totally understandable – part of the human story. After all, what parent does not want to pass on their assets, skills and knowledge to their children? What parent does not strive to give their children all the advantages and opportunities it is possible to give them, and why shouldn’t they? After all, in an evolutionary sense, we are all hardwired to protect and promote our own.

The issue is not so much about privileged children reaping the rewards of being born to successful parents, but the barriers faced by those who are not so fortunate. The world will always have nepo babies, but everyone else will have a fairer chance to succeed if there is a renewed focus on social mobility.

Social mobility aims to remove the barriers related to birthplace, parents, gender, race or any other circumstance that is beyond an individual’s control. It is based on the concept of equal opportunity and the key to upward social mobility has always been education, which raises another complication. 

For decades, Australia has been moving towards a two-tiered education system. Privileged children not only attend generously resourced schools where they benefit from enhanced educational experiences, but also, tap into a range of extracurricular activities from an early age, allowing them to develop social and cultural capital.

Underprivileged children, on the other hand, get the basic essentials in underfunded, neglected and poorly resourced government schools. That’s not equal opportunity and it stymies upward social mobility.  Instead, clearly favouring one ‘class’ of students over another looks a lot like nepotism on an industrial scale.  

The remedy may be clear – give everyone a fair go – and it is eminently doable, but the vested interests of those seeking to maintain their privilege will always present formidable challenges. Two things are certain.  The first is that In a thriving democracy, upward social mobility is a prerequisite. The second is that spectacular uprisings (think the French and Russian Revolutions) can (and will) put an end to self-serving hereditary nepo babies.  Mind you, since when did humankind learn the hard lessons of history?

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