Is the Pope a nepo baby?

Few famous faces can escape the internet’s latest charge—but what does it mean and where did it come from?
March 1, 2023

It smacked of sexism when the BBC reported earlier this year: “World’s richest man promotes daughter to head Dior”. I don’t remember seeing such a headline when the same man, Bernard Arnault, appointed his four sons to leadership roles in Dior’s holding company, LVMH. I guess it doesn’t count if Delphine Arnault has already proved she’s worth her salt after a successful 10 years as executive vice president for Louis Vuitton (another of her father’s businesses). The message was that she was a “nepo baby”, someone who got where they are because of a famous relative.

It’s a charge that few famous faces can escape these days—including some unlikely ones, such as the apostolic successor to Saint Peter. On Twitter, users have been asking: “Is the Pope a nepo baby? Let’s discuss.”

It’s not just the rich who create nepo babies

Ironic that the Pope should be jokingly accused of being a nepo baby. The word nepotism (the showing of unfair ­preference to a relative in conferring a position or privilege, from the Latin nepot-, “nephew”) was first written in English by Samuel Pepys, but it came from the archaic Italian form nipotismo, referring to the favouritism shown to an illegitimate son (disguised as a “nephew”) by a pope or other dignitary.

A recent study of 26m Americans by the economist Matthew Staiger at Harvard showed that it is not just the rich who create nepo babies. Favours are curried right through the social classes, especially in blue-collar jobs like construction. A third of Americans work for the same employer as a parent in the early years of their careers and earn 17 per cent more than non-nepo babies. But the gain dwindles over time, as nepo babies stay in their jobs longer while others overtake them by finding new roles with better pay.

The study found a gender and race divide among nepo babies, too. Most followed in the footsteps of the parent who shared their gender, with daughters more than twice as likely to work for their ­mother’s employer and sons 1.5 times more likely to work for their father’s (the main exception being black men, who were less likely than white men to work for their fathers). Because of the gender pay gap, sons earned more than daughters.

For now, though, the interwebs is busy “outing” nepo babies, from Justin Trudeau to George Bush. Hailey Bieber was called a “double nepo” because her father is the actor Stephen Baldwin and her husband the pop star Justin Bieber. She retorted by wearing a crop top with “nepo baby” written across it. The perfect Gen Z response: own your weakness, and your privilege.