Parents should not depend on their children for every financial emergency

24 Sep

Last week, an NRI friend rushed back to India after a parent was hospitalised. A critical task at work needed his attention, but he had to leave to take care of what he saw as his duty, anxious at the same time about keeping his job. He was apologetic about being so far away. But he had been the centre of attention when he had secured grad school admissions and a high-paying job abroad. 

So much has changed about the way we study, work, earn, save and invest money and how we manage our assets and wealth across generations. But there is a lot that has not changed in our attitudes and beliefs, a residue of times when things were much simpler. 

When a family ran a business, for example, being rooted to a place was traditionally important. Local clientele developed through personal relationships nourished by the head of the family. Then male children took over the business, and the patriarch’s power only fortified as he aged, in a property that was large enough to house the entire family. 

The business and the property provided everything the family needed—shelter, security, support and a source of wealth and income. The rules of wealth transfer were determined in the context of that joint holding, and girls took their share as streedhan which was theirs to own and use. The law protected the rights of heirs, while allowing the women unencumbered access to their streedhan. 

We know how far we have moved away from such patriarchal systems and all the above practices seem ancient and obsolete. But wait a minute. We still have people building large houses, ostensibly for their children. It is still common for parents to marry their daughter off with gold and wealth, even if the girl is a fully qualified professional whose future income will be substantial. 

Today, families spawn multiple cultures, languages and geographies. There are children born to parents from different communities and continents, studying in one country and working in another. Even within a household that runs a family business, owns farmland, or runs a political party, the dividing lines have been drawn long ago. 

We can argue about the good old times and the strong bonds of tradition, but returning to those systems of joint families and businesses is not practical anymore. Many business empires have been split acrimoniously to failure, and many court battles have outlived the heirs they were meant to benefit. We have moved on to accepting the limitations of the traditional model in business. Public ownership of large global businesses is now the norm. Many of us have benefitted from being shareholders of successful businesses. 

When we do not recognise and accept the consequences of the changed system, we create stress of the kind our NRI friend suffers. It is not uncommon to paint those who went abroad to study and work, as selfish chasers of money. Many live torn between countries and cultures, unable to stay away or return. 

If we accept that the asset of the modern times is not the land or the business, but the human brain and the combination of knowledge, skill and attitude it holds, it has to be mobile for being efficiently deployed to earn an optimal income. Whether we seek the most efficient use of that capability, or decide to compromise on a few variables is a matter of personal preference and choice. 

Some educated women choose to quit their jobs after a child is born; retired individuals choose a new profession and continue to earn money, for the sheer joy of a new thing; salaried employees quit and turn entrepreneurs, trading off the security of regular income for the possibility of magical valuation; the employed moonlight in another job to enhance their incomes; housewives seek the Internet to teach math and music across the world for an hourly fee; and grandmoms have come out of the woodwork to earn sizeable ad revenues from their YouTube channels. 

These are not examples of greed that discard traditions and customs. We would see these as personal choices that utilise the human asset. They will not optimise for the needs, expectations, and preferences of others, even if the others are the near and dear. 

We need conversations around the constraints and compromises these choices involve, without derisively undercutting the luxuries that money brings as not being substitute enough for love, care and attention. The locus of activity changed years ago when the erstwhile child became an earning member, thousands of miles away. The extended family understands the trade-offs and may not be able to dictate its emotional needs at a later date. 

The stories of children living too far away are heart-wrenching. But yearning for traditional solutions are impractical, given how much has changed in the earning model. If modern parents are seeking assisted living, building their own networks of friends and determined to not depend on anyone, including their children, they are moving with the times. Their children have not abandoned them, but care in the manner they can efficiently do, even if they cannot rush to hold their parent’s hand at short notice.

There is no golden rule about what is the right choice. Everyone makes their own and there is no scope for judgment or apology. As for the persistent foolhardiness of buying gold for the accomplished daughters’ wedding, that needs a column of its own. 

By Uma Shashikant

( The author is Chairperson, Centre for Investment Education and Learning) 


* The email will not be published on the website.