the generational contract

What do you owe to the future and the past? Do you owe anything to your parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles and other people from the generations babyshoebefore you? What, if anything, do you owe to your children? Many people are in the habit of speaking of debts and dues in regards to the future and past generations of their family, but what do you really, truly owe?

I want to take a simple example. If your parents paid for your college education, do you have an obligation to pay for your children’s college education, or does the “college education obligation” reset at zero each generation? One line of thinking would be that it is a gift, given by your parents to you. You have no obligation to pass on the gift. Another line of thinking would be that you are selfishly failing to repay the assistance you received.

To complicate it even further, what if you think it’s a mistake? What if your grandparents put themselves through college, paid for your parents, who then didn’t pay for you because they thought their grandparents came out better for working their way through college? I know that may be a bit of a stretch, but it’s possible. But by increasing the “generational obligation” are you increasing expectations unreasonably?

A college education is one thing, but take material items. I was given a brand-new car as a high school graduation present. Does that mean I owe my children new cars? Should I only give it to them, if, like I did, they receive full scholarships to college (and therefore didn’t need any of the money that my grandparents and parents had thought I might for school)?

I don’t plan to buy my kids ‘fancy’ cars or send them to school. Plans change, of course, as do circumstances. But the concept of a generational contract – something that is owed – is odd when you think of it, because in a sense you have no choice in it, and due to your own circumstances you may not have the ability to live up to your obligation. Even if my parents had paid for me to go to a private college (say, $10,000 per year at the time) I am not sure I would be able to do the same for my children – if in 18 years the same school would cost $40,000 per year.

In the best circumstances, people love their families and will do anything for them. But does that mean giving up career choices? A choice of a place to live? If you have ailing parents in the future and they refused to move, would you give up following your career or even just living in a place of your choosing to stay near to them? If your parents raised you in a particular religion or ethnic culture, do you have an obligation to at least introduce it to your children?

I can imagine that some people look at the level of obligation implied by children and get a little queasy thinking about everything they will owe to them. It’s not the first thing you think about in regards to children, but it is one of the things to consider. And your parents (and other older relatives) will rely on you when they are older for support and care and even “continuing the family traditions.” In some senses, one of the hardest things may be to break these expectations – to not raise the kids Catholic, or tell your parents you are moving to California when they don’t want to leave their home in Chicago. Knowing what your choice will be in these types of situations, before you have to make it, is probably worth considering.

5 comments

  • We have this in my family. My dad’s parents chose to retire back to the place that they are originally from, which is a long way from where my dad (an only child) lives. I know that either of them would hate to leave their house, but also that it’s unlikely to be practical or enjoyable for my dad to move there to look after them.

    In this case, I’m mean. They chose to move there, knowing that this scenario was and is a possibility. I think that they should have to put up with whatever works best for everyone, not just them.

    I don’t think you have any obligation to introduce your kids to the religion etc of your childhood, but I think lots of people do it because they think it will be good for the child.

  • Interesting post on an interesting concept. I’d never really thought about the possible ‘pay it forward’ aspects of one generations generosity (or lack thereof) on things like an education and cars.

    I think you are responsible to give your children the best leg-up in the world that you can. If you feel that paying for education is the best way to do that (and can afford to), go for it. If you think having them be responsible for paying for their own education to instill certain values is the best way forward, go for that.

    We have every intention of saving for our child(ren)’s education, but also the intent to instill in them the need for them to save as well. Maybe we’ll give only a certain amount a year. Or maybe we’ll cover rent and tuition and things like books and hydro will be up to them. Whatever plan we come up with, it’ll be intended to raise financially-savvy kids who aren’t saddled with a ton of debt right out of the gate.

    Maybe just a smidge of it so they can feel good about getting rid of it, though.

    I’m thinking if they want a car, they can work for it. But maybe I’m just reflecting what I was told when I wanted one as a teenager.

    As for the religion question, let’s just say I’m expecting at least one knock-down, drag-out fight (figuratively, of course…at least, I hope so) with my mother when the subject comes up. I suspect that the neighbours may set up lawn chairs and make popcorn for the show.

  • Good post. I was thinking about this the other day, especially in regard to where people choose to live. I think it’s unfair when family members call other relatives who move away “selfish” because they don’t live where everyone else lives. I don’t feel an obligation to live somewhere just because that’s where everyone else does.

    I’m in my early 20s and I think my generation is a lot less tied to tradition than previous generations. Whereas older individuals do things because that’s how things are done, my generation asks why? and when we don’t find a suitable answer, we do our own thing.

  • Sometimes I worry about my aging parents. Being 1st generation immigrants, my parents likes living in Chinese communities in the Bay Area. So it makes me feel like I am tied to this state even though I know of other cheaper and better quality of life locations outside of CA. But if I do not stay close enough, I am worry that others will take advantage of them.

  • Pingback: A Single Mom’s Finances, Paying Debt Early and House Hunting @ The Roundup