Chapter 7: Inheritance — Birthright or Legacy?
Live Well, Do Good, Die Broke.
In the late 1940s, shortly after I’d arrived in Montreal as the then-only child in a survivor family, I was sitting in a kindergarten class learning English as the teacher recounted some kind of fairytale involving a prince whose life is saved in battle by a sturdy page. In the happily-ever-after ending, the prince goes off to marry a beautiful princess, while his braver and stronger servant is left to curry the horses. My sense of the unfairness involved was so strong I stormed out of the class. The idea that any person should be owed “more” by society because of an accident of birth struck me as outrageous. A cocky, hard- scrabble refugee kid, I had no respect for inherited privilege, which I also began to see in classmates around me. Later, I came to understand that a different kind of advantage lay with me and the stable-hand: because we had to live and rise by our native wits, that pressure made us smarter and stronger.
A few chapters ago, in this space, I wrote about my parents who, after working hard at menial jobs all their lives, had finally retired and were entering what my brother and sister and I hoped would be a well deserved period of leisure. We urged them to travel, to indulge themselves, to spend whatever they had accumulated on themselves. They largely ignored us and, when they died and left us a financial inheritance that was so unexpected, we were shocked. As their kids, we hadn’t anticipated it, counted on it or, in any of our minds, deserved it. It was a disorienting and humbling experience.
These experiences taught me three lessons about notions of Inheritance and Birthright. They remain pertinent for a Zoomer generation entering its own “Legacy” time, sandwiched, with pressures top and bottom, and coming out of a major economic downturn. They are: Live well. Do good. Die broke.
1. Live well
Many factors interfere with the ideal of seniors living well, but the self-imposed pressure to go without now so that something can be left for the kids later is a major complication. Taking the contrarian view, I advocate that Zoomers should, instead, use all or at least a significant portion of any funds earmarked for bequests to improve our own standard of living.
For one thing, we deserve it. Having worked hard all our lives (and not just for ourselves), a little self-indulgence is not inappropriate. Take that trip, go around the world, buy that fancier car you’ve always wanted. When you down-size from house to condo, spend that extra money on that dream kitchen. (Then, if you have any money left, refer to Section 2 below: “Do Good.”)
A second reason for living well now is that leaving an inheritance to benefit your children might not be a benefit to them at all. Historically, Birthright was a two-way street — future inheritance was traded for present obligation. A son would be promised the family farm with the understanding that he would take care of his parents in their dotage. Minus that obligation, however, inheritance today is less a social contract and more a lottery win; it can also be a poisonous proposition for both giver and heir. In the mid-1980s, John L. Levy, executive director of the C.G. Jung Institute of San Francisco, spent several years tracking the effects of inherited wealth on affluent families. He found that a disproportionate number of the inheritors suffered from a lack of self-esteem and self-respect. “It’s hard for them to take much satisfaction in their accomplishments,” Levy wrote, “since they always suspect that their successes are at least partly the result of the wealth and position they were given.”
With this in mind, Warren Buffett, the “Oracle of Omaha” and currently the third richest man in the world, has arranged to give most of his money not to his offspring but to Bill Gates’s charitable foundation. “My kids are going to carve out their own place in this world,” says Buffett, who considers bequeathing progeny with “a lifetime supply of food stamps just because they came out of the right womb” to be a harmful and “anti-social” act.
Help your kids buy a house or pay for a grandchild’s schooling while you’re alive, if you’re so inclined; but spare them the curse of the unearned jackpot. Besides, I’m pretty sure many adult children are not unlike me and my siblings: they’d rather their parents spend their money on themselves than save it for distribution on death.
2. Do good (Onward, Zoomer soldiers!)
This is where the money that’s left over after your trip to Paris or your bathroom reno comes in. It’s also where my idea of a “Zoomer Army” manifests. Because of our generation’s numbers and relative affluence, we have an unprecedented opportunity to enrich the world and future generations through the funding of good works and volunteerism. This kind of behaviour is already more visible among Zoomers; if people have surplus money or time, they’re giving it away. The establishment of foundations and endowments has become something of a fad du jour. From Gates-sized endeavours to small bequests which will last only as long as the original benefactor’s contribution, the proliferation is extraordinary and gratifying. For a diehard egalitarian who once sided with the page over the prince, this evolution of Legacy away from something aimed strictly at biological offspring and toward society in general is a kind of vindication.
What, after all, are the uses of money in peace time but Education, Entertainment and Culture? Zoomers today are sitting on opera boards, handing out tickets at Shakespeare in the Park and volunteering to drive other seniors to venues and events (not to mention medical appointments). They’re involved in the kind of caring social activism, which has always had an enormous, if sadly unmeasured, impact. As I like to say to tough-minded financial hombres who are “just in it for the money”: travel the world and show me the statues erected to those who “Cut the Most Costs” or “Made the Most Money” in their lifetime. What you see in the art galleries, museums and public squares are memorials to the great Writers and Poets, the Scientists and Lawgivers, the Statesmen, the Warriors, the Founders of Civilizations. Banks are where we go to get cash. Theatres, concert halls and houses of worship are where we go to nourish our souls.
This Zoomer Army would have a built-in bonus: it would make for great press! There is no better antidote to the growing propaganda that casts Zoomers as the Locust Generation, about to lay waste to the public purse with our impending health-care costs, than the alternate idea of Zoomers as an army of socially active people, dedicated to supporting indispensable cultural and caregiving institutions at a time when government spending is being cut back in precisely these areas. (When there’s a Social or Arts program failing in your neighbourhood, who you gonna call? The Zoomer Army!) Lost in all the moaning about our newly extended lifespan is the fact that for a good part of those extra years we’ll be active, revenue-positive citizens, consuming goods, creating jobs and helping ourselves and others.
3. Die broke.
Some of you reading this are probably thinking this cute phrase has a certain morbid irony. Far from wanting to die broke, a lot of us are afraid we will. More to the point, we’re worried that we’ll go broke before we die. Given the latest advances in age-related therapies and medical procedures, it’s hard to know whether we have 10 years left or 20 or 40. (Twenty-five years ago, financial planners recommended having enough funds to last to age 75; today, the target age is 95.) Where 10 more years might seem feasible, 20 let alone 40 without a constantly refreshed income flow might not be. The puzzle is, how do we calculate and underwrite our remaining years so that we expire at precisely the point that the net worth points to empty?
Whatever the obstacles, though, dying broke, if it can be managed, is a moral and artistic ideal — shapely and satisfying. There’s a time for amassing and a time for divesting, and a liberation in the latter you don’t get from the former. It’s akin to cosmically cleaning out your basement.
There was a bumper sticker popular in the ’80s that read: “He who dies with the most toys wins.” nothing could be further from the truth. He or she who gives the most away — goods, work, love — is the winner by far.
Moses’ Zoomer Philosophy — which launched in ZOOMER Magazine in October 2009 — is a series of monthly essays on age and aging, and the secrets and the science to living better, longer, healthier and happier lives. The first volume of his collection is now available in e-book format on the Kobo Books website. Click here for more information.