Tocqueville’s Sicart: Letter to a Chinese “Little Emperor”: It’s Nice to Be the King, but Not Always Easy
I recently published a “Letter to My Grandson” which, by our readership standards, was a huge success with the parents and grand-parents of “twenty-somethings.” However, it elicited no response from young readers, which prompted my friendly editor Carey Horwitz to suggest that I should break that letter into small pieces and broadcast it as thirty separate “tweets.”
Nevertheless, I know many parents of Chinese youths and, building on a variety of anecdotes, I decided to press my luck and write this letter to a Chinese “Little Emperor.”
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You are part of a privileged generation of single children in China who have been so lavished with love and care by their parents and grandparents that they are often referred to as “the little emperors.” While it is nice to be treated as “the sun around which the household revolves,” many elders complain, as one kindergarten director did in an interview:
Kids these days are spoiled rotten. They have no social skills. They expect instant gratification. They’re attended to hand and foot by adults so protective that if the child as much as stumbles, the whole family will curse the ground. (Fortune, October 4, 2004)
Obviously, many young Chinese are hard-working, ethical, and respectful. But perceptions count and generalizations tend to shape public opinions.
Fortunately, let me reassure you, complaints against the young are not new. As early as the fifth century B.C., the Greek philosopher Socrates is reported to have complained:
Our young people like luxury, have bad manners, disregard authority, and have no respect for their elders.
Pretty much every generation since then has had similar grievances against the young, so it does not mean that your generation is necessarily worse than any one before it, including mine.
Stories Apart but Parallel
As an introduction to this letter, I would like to draw a (necessarily partial) parallel between the experiences of my generation in Europe and yours in China.
I was born in France too late to remember World War II, which ended in 1945 and had been a very painful experience for my parents, especially following the lean economic years of the Great Depression. My father was called into the French army three times before later having to migrate to the south of France, supposedly a “free zone” unoccupied by the German army. Eventually, my parents had to hide in a small town in the French Alps. Families were torn apart, food was in short supply, and work was difficult to procure.
After the war, however, there was an economic boom. It was needed to reconstruct the French economy (as well as those in most of Western Europe), and was largely financed by the American Marshall Plan. To me and most of my friends – who carried few memories of wartime hardships, let alone the Great Depression – life seemed easy. Most of the French people who, during the war, had either sided with the General de Gaulle’s government-in-exile or joined the Resistance, were offered the best jobs and official positions; they tended to do business with each other, within their circle of former comrades-in-arms. Not all of them became billionaires (a word that did not yet exist), but most attained a very comfortable lifestyle.
Since they were all busy making the most of the economic boom, they worked very hard and had relatively less time to raise their children. To compensate, they poured a lot of money into showering them with presents and luxuries that they had not been able to offer them during the war years.
My parents were wise enough not to spoil me quite as much as were some of my friends, but I remember a comfortable life, with cooks and nannies, ample pocket money, nice vacations, and lavish parties at my parents’ and their friends’ homes.
With such examples and experiences, no matter how hard one’s parents are working, a child cannot help but get the impression that their achievements have come easily. He or she sees only one side of the coin, assuming that equal or greater success and enjoyment will come at no pain and with no great effort. I was no exception.
While it happened against a different backdrop, your experience has not been that dissimilar. Thanks to reforms inspired or forced through after 1978, but particularly after Deng’s Southern Tour (1992), China has experienced a historically unprecedented economic boom that basically covers your entire memory span. Before that, however, China had experienced wars, infighting, famine, and the traumatic Cultural Revolution – all episodes that must have been extremely painful for your parents, but that you probably remember dimly at best.
So, when the country’s entrepreneurial spirits were released, your parents – like mine in the 1950s and 1960s – took advantage of the newly available opportunities. Their successes may have seemed to come easily, but they surely necessitated much hard work and sacrifice. The other side of the coin is that they probably spoiled you with all the things they could not afford when they were young, only partly compensating for the time they could not spare.
I am sure that many details of our experiences differ. But basically, we belong to two generations that have had it easy and probably have a tendency to underestimate the hard work that our parents have had to put in, and the obstacles they have had to surmount, to be able to lead the lives that they (and we) now enjoy. Our parallel stories, and my subsequent observations as adviser to three generations of wealthy families, give me an excuse to offer you some advice.
The Curse of Early Money
My own experience dealing with the children and grandchildren of my clients is that, while starting in life with ample money is an obvious advantage, it can also create obstacles to both achievement and fulfillment.
I will deal with fulfillment later; but in terms of deadening achievement, as measured by talent and motivation, I am not the only one to feel this way. Turn-of-the-century steel baron Andrew Carnegie enunciated a “conjecture” that bears his name and is studied in universities to this day:
The parent who leaves his son enormous wealth generally deadens the talents and energies of the son, and tempts him to lead a less useful and less worthy life than he otherwise would.
Carnegie, the son of poor Scottish immigrants, built an enormous fortune and sold his Carnegie Steel Company for $480 million in 1901, which equates to $310 billion in today’s dollars. According to celebritynetworth.com, this makes him the world’s 4th richest man of all time in inflation-adjusted dollars, ahead of such modern-day contenders as Bill Gates, Carlos Slim, Warren Buffet, and Jack Ma. Convinced, like many American self-made billionaires, of the harmful effects of inheritance, Carnegie gave away or bequeathed the majority of his fortune to charity.
But early money does