Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

Americans’ long and deep fascination with those who possess $1,000,000.

Posted Oct 19, 2020

Who Wants to Be a Millionaire is back on TV, part of the new wave of game shows the networks are presenting as televisual comfort food in our anxious times. This season is hosted by late night's Jimmy Kimmel and features both celebrity contestants playing for the charity of their choice and frontline heroes trying their hand at a $1 million prize.

But what is it about the chance to become a millionaire that continues to resonate?

The history of the millionaire in America is an interesting one. The term was rarely used in the United States until the late 19th century, but the “millionaire” gradually became thoroughly woven into the fabric of American culture. The word was reportedly first used in America in a 1776 newspaper obituary for Pierre Lorillard I, founder of the tobacco empire (“Mr. Lorillard was a ‘millionaire,’” the obit read, this made possible by his giving people something they could “chew that which they could not swallow”).

There were only three millionaires in 1861, according to one source, but that was about to change dramatically over the next century. There were about 100,000 millionaires in the United States in 1961 (versus 27,000 in 1953), with 3.5 million of the 100 million households in the country holding $1 million or more in assets by the late 1990s.

Thomas Stanley’s and William Danko’s 1996 bestseller The Millionaire Next Door served as a tipping point in the history of the word. The book defused many of the mythologies surrounding the American rich, showing them not to be private school educated snobs having high tea every afternoon but ordinary in every way except for their high net worth. With millionaires normalized and seeing wealth envy at an all-time-high, other authors jumped on the how-to-get-rich bandwagon even as the dot-com bubble popped. “Millionaire mania has become the ‘Harry Potter’ of personal-finance publishing,” Newsweek reported in 2000, as a string of advice books showing how to achieve seven figures in net worth hit store shelves and online sites.

Thomas J. Stanley followed up his own bestseller with another, The Millionaire Mind, with The 401(k) Millionaire and 365 Ways to Become a Millionaire (Without Being Born One) also showing readers how to get to the number. Another, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, was the literary version of the television show that was turning out to be a cultural phenomenon. (During one week in August 2000, the show finished second, third, and fourth in the Nielsen ratings, beaten only by Survivor, another show offering contestants the chance to win $1 million.)

Since the Gilded Age, a million dollars held a special resonance but now because of real estate values and the surging stock market, the magical number was for many within spitting distance. About 4 percent of American households were indeed millionaires in terms of net worth (house included) at the beginning of the 21st century, clear evidence of the gradual “middle-classing” of wealth since the 1950s.

In purely financial terms, inflation has played a huge role in devaluing the status of being a millionaire—$1 million in 2005 was equivalent to just $86,000 in 1930—but the mythology surrounding the term is arguably as strong as ever despite this depreciation. “There is something about the word ‘millionaire’ that continues to resonate,” thought Andy Serwer in 2005, correctly believing that, “It’s still an entry point into a club that most folks hope to join.” Serwer found about 40,000 books on Amazon with the word “millionaire” in its title, a good indicator of the term’s still potent cultural currency. Hubert Herring of The New York Times felt similarly to Serwer, thinking the following year that, “We still use the word ‘millionaire’ with reverential awe, with a sense that someone with such wealth lives in the rarefied world of the superrich, the Champagne flowing daily in an art-filled penthouse.”

The fact was, however, that being a millionaire hardly conveyed extreme wealth, in part because of its ubiquity. There were in 2006 no less than 8.7 million millionaires in the world, according to a study from Merrill Lynch and Capgemini, their number nearly doubling in the past decade. Millionaires had become commonplace over the decades (“Somewhere along the line, having $1 million—like the ability to diagram sentences, do math in your head, and the dollar itself—became devalued,” observed Paul B. Brown of the Times in 2008) yet most people still saw the accomplishment as perhaps the definitive symbol of both success and happiness. Inevitably, a new book was soon on the market—How to Be a Billionaire: Proven Strategies from the Titans of Wealth—evidence that the stakes had been raised now that millionaires were, so to speak, a dime a dozen.

Indeed, by the latter part of that decade, the millionaire drizzle had turned into a millionaire downpour. Stanley had followed up his sequel with another, Millionaire Women Next Door, but it was David Bach’s The Automatic Millionaire: A Powerful One-Step Plan to Live and Finish Rich that blew the doors off the how-to-get-rich genre. Seeing that readers didn’t really want to work that hard to get wealthy, authors took the roads-are-paved-with-gold idea even further with books like One Minute Millionaire, Lunchtime Millionaire, and The Accidental Millionaire.

Speed was definitely now of the essence, with Millionaire by 40 outdone by Millionaire by 26 outdone by How to Be a Teenage Millionaire outdone by Discovering the Millionaire in Every Child. (It was surprising that a book called How to Conceive a Millionaire had not yet been published.) With roughly 10 million millionaire households in the United States in June 2007 (just as the subprime mortgage crisis and subsequent recession were kicking in, reducing that number) there were more people with more money than any other time or place in history.