It’s tough when you’re at the top! You might be the richest man in the world one year but completely off of the Forbes billionaire list in the next.
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Since 1987, Forbes magazine has ranked the wealthiest people in the world. A lot has changed.
Today, the richest man in the world is Jeff Bezos of Amazon, worth $131 billion as of March 2019. As the founder of Amazon, he owns a 16% stake in the company, which made $230 billion in one year (2018). He’s particularly interesting considering that as of 2015, he wasn’t even on the top 10 list. Forbes’s richest person by year list and the Bloomberg Billionaires Index both rank him as the wealthiest person in the world today. He shot up the charts quickly, earning his very first billion in 1999, which means he now makes more than a hundred times what he did after only two decades. That’s not bad for a mostly self-made guy who started his career flipping burgers and fixing ketchup containers at McDonald’s
- Jeff Bezos — $131 billion
- Bill Gates — $96.5 billion
- Warren Buffett — $82.5 billion
- Bernard Arnault — $76 billion
- Carlos Slim Helu — $64 billion
- Amancio Ortega — $62.7 billion
- Larry Ellison — $62.5 billion
- Mark Zuckerberg — $62.3 billion
- Michael Bloomberg — $55.5 billion
- Larry Page — $50.8 billion
Bezos wasn’t always the wealthiest man in the world. For the vast majority of the history of the Forbes list, one man has stayed on the top the majority of the time: William Gates III, more commonly known as Microsoft founder Bill Gates. Since the list’s creation in 1987, Gates topped the rankings 16 times (in other words, roughly half of the time). This is despite the billionaire philanthropist’s active efforts to reduce his wealth. The world-famous Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has a mind-boggling endowment of $50.7 billion for its philanthropy and is working to fight malaria and provide clean water to underprivileged communities.
Warren Buffett, chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, also known as the “Wizard of Omaha,” has ranked consistently on the top 10 list of billionaires and also has formally pledged to give away at least half of his wealth. He’s famously frugal as well, rarely spending more than about three dollars on breakfast, and considers his wealth to be at least partially attributed to luck.
“In short, fate’s distribution of long straws is wildly capricious,” Warren Buffett wrote in his pledge.
One might argue that this kind of philanthropy from the world’s wealthiest is at least somewhat inspired by self-interest rather than pure altruism, given wealth’s complicated history in America. Nevertheless, despite Gates and Buffett giving away massive amounts of money, they still both rank second and third on the Forbes list of richest people in the world and have consistently ranked well for the past 30 years.
Before Buffett, Bezos, and Gates, the Forbes richest people list looked quite different, though. It was less white, for one.
The World’s Richest People in 1987
- Yoshiaki Tsutsumi — $20 billion
- Taikichiro Mori — $15 billion
- Shigeru Kobayashi — $7.5 billion
- Haruhiko Yoshimoto — $7 billion
- Salim Ahmed bin Mahfouz — $6.2 billion
- Hans and Gad Rausing — $6 billion
- Paul Reichmann and Brothers — $6 billion
- Yohachiro Iwaski — $5.6 billion
- Kenneth Thomson — $5.4 billion
- Keizo Saji — $4 billion
The 1987 original Forbes World Billionaires List featured names you might not even recognize: Yoshiaki Tsutsumi, for instance, was the world’s richest man in that year. The hotel, train, and real estate mogul was worth $20 billion in 1987 but was subsequently the subject of lawsuits and accusations of fraud. He’s since been removed from the Forbes list entirely. Examining our list of the richest person in the world by year, one can see how the Lost Decade, a period of economic collapse in the early 1990s, had a huge impact on Japan’s wealthiest.
The list has gotten whiter, and it’s also stayed male. As of now, no self-made female billionaire has made more than $10 billion. That being said, big earners like Oprah Winfrey and Diane Hendricks working their way up the list has been a good thing. Who knows? Maybe we’ll have a female billionaire on the top 10 list in the future.
Our retrospective of the Forbes list shows us both how easy it is to lose money and how hard it is!