By Eva Izsak-Niimura

Charente_web(French) What constitutes a “family?” What is this corner stone of society? The definition of “family” continues to be an evolving topic. Yet, the “traditional” family is not collapsing. As a matter of fact, it demonstrates an amazing capacity for survival in light of all revolutionary forces. There are, undeniably, many alternatives nowadays to “old fashioned” family values—gay marriage, French Pacs, single parenthood—a smorgasbord of possibilities. Nonetheless, the institution stubbornly persists.

The historical background of the family lingers today, and helps create many of the different economic outcomes we witness in Europe, Asia, and the United States. Having lived both in the U.S. and in France, I can testify firsthand to some of these differences in an account that is more anecdotal than scientific, painted with a broad brush, which may be recognized by my fellow expatriates. *

The traditional European family is vertical—that is, the family line moves down the generations from the founding fathers to their descendents. The patriarch views his future incarnation in his, until recently male, offspring who carries on the family name, title, and fortune. The structure remains rooted in the mechanism of feudal society: land being the main, sometimes only, asset, and the methods of begetting it determine what the future generations would eat. In very rough terms, the eldest boy ended up inheriting the land, farming it, and passing it on to his own eldest son. The second became a priest, rendering the issue of inheritance, by definition, quite irrelevant. And the third, usually took on soldiering as a career, and either conveniently died in battle or acquired his own fortunes, looting being a probable option.

The wife did not carry much weight in this equation. She was considered an add-on, but not an integral part of the bloodline, a tangible part rather than a building block. The economic reality still very much reflects this persisting social reality. Upon the patriarch’s death, the wife does not have a priority in the inheritance totem pole. Only the children are considered when passing on the “assets.” The wife stands in queue more as a “charity case,” a weak, poor (and old) relative who has to be provided for by either allowing her to benefit from the “fruit” of the assets during her life time—that is not quite being thrown out on the street, but neither acquiring substantive property rights—or else she gets a “residue” of what is left after the assets are divided among the legal (and recently illegal) issue.

The “assets,” once created by the founding patriarch, now belong to the family unit rather than to any individual. They are, by virtue of the practically “automatic” inheritance scheme, a sort of “trust” passed on from one generation to the next. Each exists under an unspoken, but holy obligation to increase rather than deplete what they have been given for safekeeping. This “guaranteed” inheritance, which is not to be denied even by will, imposed by the rules of the paternalistic state, creates an “expectation” by future generations to receive title to those assets, virtually without ever lifting a finger. For all practical purposes, the potential future owners of those assets do have a certain “right” to them and a “claim” against the current holder of the trust if he, by negligence or selfishness, ends up depriving them of what is rightfully theirs.

This socioeconomic structure, and the combination of such definition of “family” and “assets,” has implications that are detrimental to the development of modern European society. A result of this inherent state of affairs, whereby one’s riches, to a certain minima, is determined upon his/her birth and not by merit is, inevitably, responsible for lack of motivation and incentive to create such merit. There are plenty of exceptions, of course, and a person’s motivation is, to a large extent, a question of personal traits. But, all things being equal, the prospect of a “free fall,” or the knowledge of a vested right in future assets renders European youth less “hungry,” less energetic, and less creative as a whole. That is a perfect recipe for stagnation. It may provide at least a partial explanation as to why all those brilliant minds and first-rate human capital have not been able to move the gears of European economy. Life is just too comfortable.

One manifestation to that effect is the trend, for lack of economic pressure, is for European students to continue their education to a PhD level, regardless of whether or not they would be interested in pursuing an academic career. Childhood—professional but, consequently, psychological—is extended. Students continue to live with mom and dad into their mid to late twenties. Their U.S. counterparts, by now considered “young adults,” are expected to start being productive in very practical terms and “earn their living” by that age. In addition, the prohibitive cost of education deters eternal student life. A French youngster could refer to the parents’ apartment as “my apartment,” and even advise them on their investments with a view of a prospect lawful owner thereof. There is a sense of stability and security in a future based on past generations’ achievements. Unfortunately, it may be a false sense of security. In a world that is increasingly unstable, the danger is that a generation of Europeans who were not taught to kill for their meal may find itself helpless to compete with the much hungrier emerging youngsters from across the oceans.

The U.S. lacks the feudal background. It is a country founded on industry where intellectual property has, from almost the very beginning, had the equivalent value of land. “Assets” may be stock, a patent, or a diploma (diplomas acquired during a marriage are considered “marital asset” and their value accounted for and divided during divorce proceedings). Fortunes derived from industry, unless reinvested, are bound to be depleted as technology advances. Hence, future generations are required to keep on their toes, be alert. They can’t rest on the glory of the past, nor expect long-term stability. Intellectual property has a very limited half-life. These assets are far more “fungible,” fragile and temporary.

Furthermore, in American individualistic society those “assets” do not belong to anyone other than the person who actually created them. The American ideal is not the noble aristocrat with manicured fingernails (even if there is some fascination with that figure), but the “self made man.” He is defined as the immigrant who came from nowhere and built an empire, the child of the sweatshop, blue collar, worker who is now a professor at Harvard business school and advisor to the President. He is the President. And that man, dirt under fingernails and all, feels personally entitled to his achievements and rewards. They don’t belong to his ancestors (he had none); neither do they belong to his children (let them create their own). They belong to him. So, if the hedonistic ninety two year old billionaire fancies leaving all his fortune to a Las Vegas dancer whose young breasts brought him more happiness in his old days than the rare, dutiful visits of his offspring—as long as legally competent—he is the king of his own realm. No paternalistic state would enforce its laws instead of a man’s free will, no matter how ridiculous that will may be.

Whereas it is rare to replace children, it is not at all uncommon to replace a wife or a husband with a newer, improved model. Yet, it is this less stable husband-wife set that is the founding block of the American family. It is a horizontal structure, each layer, each generation, constitutes a family. It is a structure based on choice. A sacred union (at least for as long as it lasts) between two individuals who elect to be together. The children, if any, are reared lovingly in this nest. At 18, they are strongly encouraged to spread their wings (and discover personal limits of beer consumption) in college. They are welcomed back on Thanksgivings and special occasions. They are still “family,” but one step removed from the nuclear couple. They are, at this point, expected to plan a future for themselves in what will eventually constitute their own husband-wife (or any of its current replacements) unit.

They are also expected to build their own fortunes. The “family home” is no longer their home. They now stay in the “guest room” when visiting. They may or may not inherit it, but either way would have to, usually, stand behind the surviving spouse in line for the assets. Further assuming there is no will bequeathing said assets to the local church, synagogue, animal shelter, or any other favorite charity, they may receive the “residue” left by the surviving spouse. Which may be severely depleted by then. In short, they pray the lady does not have a “shoe habit”.

In fact, in most cases the lady (assuming it’s the lady) is not the latest graduate of the local strip club. She is an elderly, perhaps sickly, person well past retirement age, after years of lovingly caring for her spouse, deserves to end her life in dignity. The American legislator assumes that it is more appropriate to provide for the widow or widower, now too old to search for income resources, than for the far younger children who should be in the prime of their careers and in full command of their faculties.

This socioeconomic structure creates a whole different world of expectations and incentives for future generations. An American youth expects to start life with a blank page—well, semi blank, as education and social background are significant factors. Future success depends mainly upon him or herself, and achievements will be independently earned. The risks are higher—there is no safety net under one’s feet—but so are the rewards. Each generation creates its own “family,” responsibility, and fate—nothing is predestined. This fresh start, this freedom of each generation to reinvent itself may be the energy, the vibrancy, the optimism that are so often cited by visitors to the U.S. It keeps the country, even if wealthy and therefore candidate for decline, young and ambitious.

Are European parents more protective? Do they provide a better sense of stability? A more committed family? Not in my opinion. Overprotection brings about lack of confidence, fear of flying, of failure, of risk-taking. At the end of the day, youngsters who were given chances to struggle with challenge end up trusting themselves to be able to come up with solutions. And parents, by gradually letting go, signal to their children that they do, in fact, have faith in their strength, abilities and own wisdom. Incidentally, the financial investment American parents make in their kids’ college education is none lesser, often far more expensive, than the future value of an apartment in Paris. The old truth that giving one the means to create wealth is far more beneficial than providing them with wealth is hereby proven. Whereas French schooling is almost free, an Ivy League education is a chicken that lays golden eggs. And an apartment requires costly repairs.

As for stability, it may be overrated. There is something free and very refreshing about the emphasis the American family places on individual happiness rather than parental martyrdom. Having grown up within the confining embrace of a mother who “sacrificed” herself and having been forever reminded of the enormity of the debt I owed for the rest of her life, I find something very loving—and liberating—about the way American parents kick their chicks out, taking neither the credit for their achievements nor the blame for their occasional failures. I wish I could translate that freedom into French.

* Disclaimer—the above is based on a vague notion of French and U.S. family and inheritance laws and should not be deemed to be anything other than personal impressions and opinions thereof.    

Acknowledgements: Alyssa Heitfeld, English, Media and Cultural Studies major at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota and Editing Intern with A Woman’s Paris.

Eva Izsak-Niimura photo casual cropped copyEva Izsak-Niimura was born in Transylvania (a Hungarian-speaking province in Romanina) and educated in Israel. For more than twenty years, Eva practiced law at some of the largest law firms in New York and served as In-House Counsel with U.S. and French financial institutions before pursuing a career as a writer. Eva, mother of two daughters, has lived in Tel Aviv, Tokyo and New York and is currently residing in Paris where she is working on her first novel.

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Text copyright ©2015 Eva Izsak-Niimura. All rights reserved.
Illustrations copyright ©2015 Barbara Redmond. All rights reserved.