Monday, January 12, 2009

Loss of Posterity in America

(heads up since this article has religious references)

My grandfather was president of one of the largest of the old banks that ruled Korea’s business landscape before the chaebols (conglomerates) dominated South Korea. He was a banker well known for his acumen and wisdom. Some saw these attributes as shrewd and cold-hearted. Whatever the label, he made a lasting imprint on the industry.

My grandfather managed his household affairs with similar strong discernment (though I would not call him cold-hearted). I primarily knew him and my grandmother as my caretakers for a few years during early childhood while my parents studied in the U.S. As he did on his industry, my grandfather also left a lasting imprint on me.

One of my father’s siblings — there were ten in all — failed at numerous stages of adulthood. So one day my grandfather made him a proposition.

“Since you haven’t done much with your life so far, I’ll give you a portion of your inheritance now. Let’s see what you will do with it.”

My grandfather bought him some property. After some time, my uncle revealed that he had done nothing but collect rent on the property, which he spent frivolously. So that was that. Years later, when my grandfather’s will was read, my uncle received nothing more than shock and confusion.

I’m almost certain my grandfather never read the Bible, but his wisdom in managing one of his sons reminds me of Christ’s Parable of the Talents:

“Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his property to them. To one he gave five talents of money, to another two talents, and to another one talent, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. The man who had received the five talents went at once and put his money to work and gained five more. So also, the one with the two talents gained two more. But the man who had received the one talent went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money…

“His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.” — Matthew 25: 14-18, 26-27

My grandfather believed in responsible stewardship, but I believe what drove his decisions was the importance of his legacy and how future generations — posterity — would reflect his values. Severing my uncle from his will was not only a financial act, but also a relational one.

The idea of posterity is prevalent in East Asian cultures. People think in terms of generations of families and peoples. Because he was a third-generation only son, my wife’s brother served in a lighter six-month program in the South Korean Army versus a standard two-year commitment. Some laws in China carry punishments that last for three generations, and the Chinese government creates 100-year plans for its nation’s development.

Posterity was a common ideal woven into the fabric of America’s founding that seems to have unraveled. Maybe it started with the dissolute Me Decade that straddled the 60s and 70s? Maybe the Greatest Generation’s weakness lay in its inability or unwillingness to raise a generation of equally disciplined, self-sacrificing, public-spirited citizens? Perhaps it was lost in the gold rush… There are other places to go for that analysis. What seems clear is, it’s missing now.

It’s interesting to note that the U.S.household savings rate has been in rapid decline since the 1990s. The Bureau of Economic Analysis calculates the National Income and Product Accounts (NIPA) personal saving rate was approximately 10% during the 1970s, 8% in the 1980s, and dropped to less than 1% by 2006. What happened? Did the wisdom of planning for retirement and the possibility of doing good beyond our lifetime become passé in 1990? Spend your money on the here and now. Hopefully our 401(k) is enough! And social security will be on its last leg, but we should get ours!

The Biblical perspective upholds posterity. God provides promises not only to Abram, but his future generations:

Then the LORD said to him, “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions. You, however, will go to your fathers in peace and be buried at a good old age. In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.” — Genesis 15: 13-16

David declares both rich and poor have a legacy in the kingdom of God.

All the rich of the earth will feast and worship; all who go down to the dust will kneel before him—those who cannot keep themselves alive. Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord. They will proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn—for he has done it. — Psalm 22: 29-31

This sort of long-term thinking has become foreign to many of us. As a new parent, these words force me to consider how my behavior and actions affect my children and their children. But, whether we have children or not, how can we take up our responsibility to influence future generations in the ongoing community of God’s people? If I am blessed with wealth, how I should manage it? Pass it on to my children? Donate it to a well managed church or nonprofit? Set up a foundation? Besides which, not everyone is blessed with wealth — and some gain wealth late in life, while others lose it — which makes David’s words in Psalm 22 all the more meaningful for their focus on the spiritual legacy we can pass to the next generation. This idea of posterity seems a bit burdensome, so maybe its loss from our cultural norms isn’t a surprise. So many questions and no simple answers. If it’s clear the idea of posterity is missing in this culture, it’s just as clear that we are the ones who must restore it.

Do you cringe at all this because you think you’re just a horrible example to follow — Genghis Khan is a better person than you? You can’t plan three months ahead, so how can you be expected to think about future generations? I know people who are better now than they once were, but I don’t know anyone who is prepared to be a perfect example for their children and future generations. So let’s just take simple steps. Take it one day at a time. One prayer at a time. One decision at a time. One verse at a time. One action at at time. One moment at a time.

Originally posted at InsideWork.

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