From shirtsleeve to shirtsleeve in three generations is the American version of a Lancashire proverb, “There are but three generations between a nuisance and a nuisance.”
Andrew Carnegie, the famous 19th century Scottish industrialist, has been credited by many with bringing the proverb’s message to America. Research shows that the adage is ancient and not unique to any one country or culture. In Italian it is “dalle stalle alle stelle alle stalle” (“from stalls to stars to stalls”). The Spanish say, “whoever does not have it, haces it; and whoever has it, undoes it” (“whoever does not have it, does it, and whoever has it, abuses it”). Even non-Western cultures, including China, have a similar proverb, “paddy to paddy.” Shirt sleeves to shirt sleeves is a proverb that describes the natural tendency of human behavior in terms of creating long-term families as financial failures.
The proverbial theory is that the first generation starts in a rice paddy, which means that two like-minded people got together and worked from the bottom up to create a financial fortune. The original generation often builds their wealth without making significant changes to their values, customs, or lifestyle. The second generation moves to the city, adopts the latest fashions, patronizes the opera, runs large organizations and the plateaus of fortune. The third generation, with no experience in building or maintaining wealth, consumes the financial fortune and the fourth generation returns to the paddy field. This is the classic formulation of the shirt-sleeve proverb, which remains as true today as it has proven throughout recorded human history.
When considering long-term legacy planning, what is often called seventh-generation thinking comes into play. Seventh generation thinking can be illustrated with an antidote from an Iroquois tribal elder, who begins the tribal council meeting by saying:
“Let’s begin our work here today with the hope that the decisions we make will be respected by our tribesmen seven generations from now.”
James E. Hughes, Jr., attorney, author, and multigenerational family counselor, defines a family as two or more people who, either by genetic lineage or kinship, are considered related to each other. At the core of his philosophy is the belief that a family that considers itself united not only by blood but also by affinity and acts from that philosophical basis has the best chance of successfully enhancing the individual growth and development of its members and, therefore, to dynamically preserve the family as a whole for at least five generations. An affinity family maintains open systems that welcome new members, giving the family a better chance of survival. These strangers represent the new energy that the family needs to overcome what it will lose through natural wear and tear.
Note that Attorney Hughes suggests that relying solely on a family’s biological constituents will lead to the wear and tear on the family unit and wealth over time. It is vital to create an open source family unit that enthusiastically embraces new members through marriage and other ties of affinity. When counting a family’s assets, these are represented by the individual members of the affinity family:
• The human capital of the family
• The intellectual capital of the family
• The economic capital of the family
• The social capital of the family
A long-term, seventh-generation thinking family will have a 100-year plan to manage and capitalize on the family’s major assets listed above.
If you feel that your family is an affinity family:
Have you developed a written Family Mission Statement as the guiding expression of your family’s vision, values, and goals? Y
Have you embraced seventh generation thinking and started working on a 100 Year Plan?