Shirtsleeves to Shirtsleeves in Three Generations


Three generations life stories by family line video chicagoYou may have heard the old proverb, “Shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations.” In Japan, the expression goes, “Rice paddies to rice paddies in three generations.” The Scottish say “The father buys, the son builds, the grandchild sells, and his son begs.” In China, “Wealth never survives three generations.”

Around the world there are many variations on this theme, all used to describe the tendency of the third generation of a family to squander the wealth obtained by the first.

The Three Generation Cycle

The First Generation comes from a life of hardship and is determined to make a better future for themselves. They are willing to work hard and make sacrifices in order to achieve their goal. By their later years, their efforts have paid off and they enjoy a more comfortable life, often with assets to pass on.

Their children, the Second Generation, grow up a witness to their parent’s struggle and understand the importance of hard work. Although they now live a more comfortable lifestyle, they may still remember a childhood filled with frugality. Because of this awareness, they make financial and educational choices that help them build upon the foundation their parents worked so hard to create. By their later years, the second generation has acquired even greater wealth.

The Third Generation, however, has no memory of want or struggle. They only know a life of plenty and often lack an understanding and appreciation for the work that went into building the lifestyle they now enjoy. Without this awareness, it is of little surprise that the third generation has a tendency to squander the assets their parents and grandparents worked so hard to achieve.

Avoiding the Three Generation Cycle

Photo RestorationBy keeping family stories alive, younger generations are better able to understand their parent’s and grandparent’s contributions as well as the work needed to build and maintain family wealth. Combining awareness of one’s past with thoughtful strategy for the future can help families overcome the Three Generation Cycle.


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5 Responses to Shirtsleeves to Shirtsleeves in Three Generations

  1. Jack May 8, 2017 at 9:33 am #

    Excellent article!

  2. RM Heemstra July 26, 2017 at 11:58 pm #

    Indeed, as I (1980) was growing up, my mother and her sisters would often inculcate me in frugality with stories of their mother (my grandmother and her brothers’ struggles during the Great Depression. That, along with my own higher educational studies in Economics has\ve made me fiercely frugal.

  3. RM Heemstra October 13, 2017 at 4:31 pm #

    Indubitably, fortune is forged in the fire (i.e. struggle, hardship). It is rare for family fortunes to be insinuated into the fabric of a family (e.g. Rockfellers, Waltons, Bushes, et al.).

  4. Kate Phillips November 10, 2017 at 9:21 pm #

    Wow, I am co-writing a “Family Banking Book” right now, and found this (wonderful) little article about the “shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves” phenomenon. I LOVE what you are doing and will mention you as a resource, as indeed, telling those family stories is so important!

    • Susan Saunders November 11, 2017 at 7:07 am #

      Thanks, Kate. I look forward to reading your book as well!

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