American affluence is so widespread that we tend to forget how recent a phenomenon it is. There are still many older people who grew up with just a couple of shirts or dresses to their name, walked everywhere, and as children were overjoyed to receive one toy for Christmas. Today, many of us have so much “stuff” that we have to rent storage units for what we don’t use.
As your boomer clients move into the empty-nest and retirement phases of life, I would anticipate more soul-searching about the values under their affluence. Questions about how they live and what legacy they are leaving are most usefully contemplated while they still have choices. By coaching them to identify what’s truly important, you may help them achieve goals that go beyond money.
Ever since my clients’ 21-year-old daughter returned from a long stay in a rural village in Kenya, she’s been scornful of her family’s lifestyle–complaining about food they waste, expensive clothes they seldom wear, and so on. They respect her feelings and would like to go along with some of her views, but not to the extent of giving away all their belongings. What would you suggest? This question certainly rings a bell! My son recently spent nearly a year visiting relatives and studying Hindi and Sanskrit in Thailand and India. After this rich experience, he now views America through a strikingly different lens.
I think your clients should sit down with their daughter and calmly discuss how they feel about choices they’ve made on issues that are important to them, perhaps including personal, financial, and environmental responsibility. They need to be honest about ways that their level of affluence and comfort makes them feel good, and admit any choices that make them feel conflicted or guilty.
Do they like the way she lives and aspires to live? Are they proud of her? Do they feel she is unrealistic or misguided, or has she led them to change their thinking in some areas? No matter what the parents’ opinions are, they need to take care not to judge her (or themselves) too harshly. Their dialogue should strive for compassion, honesty, and mutual understanding (For further reading on the form this dialogue should take, see Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, by Marshall Rosenberg (Puddledancer Press, 2003). Gently confronting their daughter about her harsh judgment of their choices, they can ask her to be more tolerant of the difficulty they would have in implementing some of her suggestions.
This conversation will probably lessen the sting of her proselytizing. Converts to a new belief are particularly hard to live with during the initial phase. However, their stridency usually passes with time.
After 10 years as a corporate lawyer, my wife plans to give it up and become a teacher. I’m trying to be supportive, but it will mean a substantial drop in our family income. At this point in life, I’m not ready to skimp on the good things. After my years of hard work as a planner, don’t I deserve better? There is nothing wrong with your desire to enjoy the things you’ve worked hard to achieve. Nor is there anything wrong with your wife wanting a worklife that seems more meaningful and rewarding to her.
However, the slight defensiveness and resentment I detect suggests that her career shift may be making you feel anxious and disoriented. See if you can table your fears long enough to enter her world, then invite her to enter yours.
Find time to talk when both of you are feeling calm. Discuss each other’s hopes and dreams concerning your wife’s planned career move, then your fears and concerns. I suggest that each of you play back what the other says and then validate it by saying, “It makes sense that you feel [A, B, C], because [X, Y, Z].” Repeat this process without judging or criticizing your spouse, and end with, “I imagine you might also be feeling [D or E].”
After you’ve done this for each other, you may find yourself letting go of the need to defend your own desires. You may then be able to brainstorm a win-win solution that allows your wife to achieve at least some of her dreams without your having to give up all your creature comforts. Even if neither of you is fully able to satisfy your needs, the changes that result from visiting each other’s world should leave you feeling closer and more aligned.
An entrepreneurial couple who are clients have made a very comfortable life for themselves. They would like to share some of their good fortune with his parents, who live very frugally, but the older folks have turned down their offers to pay for such things as home improvements, a Mediterranean cruise, and a new car. Is there a way they can persuade the parents to accept the rewards of their affluence? Decades of living a certain way can have a powerful effect on what folks will allow themselves to enjoy. In addition, many people are afraid to try something new, even if it promises to be more pleasurable than their old way of life. Skimping and “making do” may feel as comfortable as a worn old shoe to this older couple, while the prospect of being swept into a more luxurious lifestyle makes them feel disoriented and ill at ease.
If your clients want to bring his parents around to accept gifts, the process needs to begin with a thoughtful exchange of views. Your clients can explain how much they would enjoy making the parents’ lives more comfortable. The parents should be invited to share their attitude toward pleasure and money, and explain their resistance to receiving the previous gifts. Did it offend their pride to be offered things they could have afforded to buy for themselves? As parents, did they feel ashamed to accept such valuable gifts from their child? Or were they just not interested in the car, cruise, or renovations? If this is the case, is there another gift that they would be willing to receive from their son and daughter-in-law?