Shirt sleeves to shirt sleeves in three generations is the American version of a Lancashire proverb, “There are not but three generations between a hoof and a hoof.
Many have credited Andrew Carnegie, the famous 19th-century Scottish industrialist, with bringing the proverb’s message to America. The survey shows that the adage is old and not specific to any country or culture. In Italian, it is “dalle stalle alle stelle alle stalle” (“from the stalls to the stars to the stalls”). The Spaniards say: “quien no lo tiene, lo hance; y quien lo tiene, lo deshance” (“who does not have it, does it, and who has it, abuses it”). Even non-Western cultures, including the Chinese, have a similar saying, “rice field into rice field.” From shirt sleeves to shirt sleeves is a proverb that describes the natural tendency of human behavior to create long-term families like financial failures.
The theory of the saying is that the first generation starts in a paddy field, which means that two people with an affinity for each other got together and worked from below to create a financial fortune. The original generation generally builds their wealth without making significant changes to their values, customs or lifestyle. The second generation settles in the city, embraces the most fashionable fashions, sponsors the opera, runs large organizations and makeshift sets. 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 documented human history.
When considering long-term inheritance planning, what is often referred to as the seventh generation thought comes into play. The seventh generational thought can be exemplified by an antidote from an old tribal elder. Iroquois, who begins the tribal council meeting by saying:
“Let us begin our work here today with the hope that the decisions we make will be honored by our tribal members seven generations from today.”
James E. Hughes, Jr., lawyer, author and multigenerational family counselor, defines a family as two or more people who, either by genetic lineage or by affinity ties, see themselves as related to each other. At the heart of his philosophy is the belief that a family which sees itself as linked not only by blood but by affinity and acts from this philosophical basis has the greatest chance of successfully improving the individual development and growth of its members and thus 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 they will lose due to natural attrition.
Note that Attorney Hughes suggests that relying solely on the biological constituents of a family will lead to attrition and weakening of the family unit and wealth over time. Creating an open-source family unit that enthusiastically welcomes new members through marriage and other bonds of affinity is vital. When counting the assets of a family, they are represented by the individual members of the affinity family:
• The human capital of the family
• The intellectual capital of the family
• The financial capital of the family
• The social capital of the family
A family with a long term seventh generation thinking will have a 100 year plan to manage and capitalize on the core family assets listed above.
If you think your family is an affinity family:
Have you written a family mission statement as a guiding expression of the family’s vision, values and goals? and
Have you embraced seventh generation thinking and started working on a 100 year plan?