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Missing that fire in the belly

LiveMint logoLiveMint 15-09-2017 Monika Halan

The stories you hear are romantic only in hindsight. A young man starting with just Rs50 in his pocket sets out into the world. Thirty years later, he is the king of a large multinational empire. The stories of deprivation and lack of food in the early years make for good copy today, but only somebody who has been through it can even begin to imagine what it was like.

When you are struggling to get out of a bad place, you don’t know how it will end. Whether you will break through or get sucked in. In that struggle, however, comes the transformation. It is that fire in the belly to change, to transform, to win that pushes some people to do superhuman things. And once you make the breakthrough, it is a very human desire to promise that your children will never go through the bleak and seemingly bottomless darkness you have lived through.

You remember what the cold felt like without the money for an overcoat. Or the smell of hot food when all you had was a hole in the pocket. Not your children. Never.

Not just the uber rich, there is a large swathe of Indians who have grown rich beyond belief in the last 20 years. Doctors, lawyers, senior management in the corporate sector, entrepreneurs have seen more wealth than they thought was possible for them to earn when they stepped out of business school 30 years ago. A rising tide has buoyed most boats, but those who were already in the bigger boats rode the highest. A paediatrician once told me that the children of mass-affluent Indians have the immune systems of the developed world—really delicate. We’ve coddled and pampered our children so much that “Delhi kids” is now a term used to describe a certain level of obnoxious social behaviour.

How will the Gen-Next of the uber rich and the just rich handle money, and what challenges will they face? The answer will lie in the kind of homes they have grown up in, no matter who they are or how many zeros huddle in their family net-worth number. The toughest balance is the balance at home. When you have nothing or very little, there is no choice, but with money comes choice. How the children turn out, and what their attitudes to money are, depend on the messaging around money at home. Not what you say, but what you do. As parents, we export our deepest fears and beliefs about money in the home. The toughest parenting challenge is to create the desire for meaning in life in children who have their comforts and luxuries sorted for the rest of their lives.

A fire in the belly cannot be ignited artificially. The desire for growth must be planted deep within. It is so easy to fritter away the wealth in endless consumption. The levels of what you consume rise with the net worth. A wealth consultancy in the US calculated that 70% of wealthy families lose their wealth by the second generation, and a huge 90% by the third. It takes more than money to keep money. As I wrote in an article many years ago: “The pursuit of, the acquisition of and then the waste of wealth has definite cycles that most traditions document. If ‘from shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations’ is American, ‘wealth does not pass three generations’ is Chinese. India is at the entry point of the first stage for a large mass of people. Will we find a new phrase that will show a conscious breaking of this cycle or will we import the Chinese or American experiences? No answers yet, just questions.”

But whatever you do as a parent, never tell your child this: “At your age I was walking 20km to work and back. Look at you. Can’t survive without the AC for one afternoon.” Don’t say it. Because you made him like that. 

Monika Halan works in the area of consumer protection in finance. She is consulting editor, Mint, and on the board of Financial Planning Standards Board India.

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