More Than Money
Issue #32

Passing the Torch: The Great Wealth Transfer

Table of Contents

“From The Editor”

Pamela Gerloff

“Let the word go forth from this time and place . . . that the torch has been passed to a new generation . . . ”
—John Fitzgerald Kennedy, January 20, 1961

I was too young to remember much about President Kennedy’s inaugural address, in which he declared the passing of the torch to a new generation of Americans. However, like so many others of my generation, I’ve seen the video—as well as the excitement and vision in the eyes of those who were the first to join the Peace Corps, asking not what their country could do for them, but what they could do for their country. Whatever one’s politics, JFK’s energy and vigor, and impassioned eloquence, set a new generation of Americans ablaze with the passion to offer themselves and their service to a higher cause.

Now, some 40 years later, John F. Kennedy’s generation is at the forefront of those who are readying themselves to pass on another kind of torch.

Research by John Havens and Paul Schervish of the Social Welfare Research Institute recently confirmed the figures of the greatest wealth transfer in history: At least $41 trillion dollars is expected to pass from one generation to another over the next 55 years. That’s not just through inheritance, and it’s not just at death—it also includes philanthropic giving and taxes—but the point is, one way or another it will get transferred to someone else.

Much has been made of this large numerical figure. After all, it is unprecedented in our history. Some see it as heralding a “golden age of philanthropy.” Others point out that the average “transfer” to individual heirs is hardly the amount envisioned when one hears the aggregate number . However, to my mind, the more significant aspect of Havens and Schervish’s research is what it tells us about our potential as humans, and about the capacity of wealth to lead us into that potential, individually and collectively.

Havens and Schervish conclude that, “the leading cultural and spiritual question of the current era is how to make wise decisions in a time of affluence.” In his interview in this issue, Professor Schervish expands on this statement, explaining that the age of affluence we live in is characterized, increasingly, by choice. Greater choice, he says, does not in itself guarantee happiness—only choosing wisely does. As wealth increases, people do not necessarily become happier, because they do not necessarily become wiser (in fact, their “What if wealth exists in order to lead us to wisdom?” opportunity to make foolish and negligent choices also increases), but the conditions for learning wisdom present themselves in the very circumstances of the expanded choices that come with wealth.

The implications of this are not merely intriguing; they are, in fact, momentous: What if wealth—by compelling us to confront new questions and learn discernment —can make us both happier and wiser than we already are? And what if, on the evolutionary scale of things, that is a fundamental “purpose” of wealth? What if wealth exists in order to lead us to wisdom—if we choose to use it for that purpose?

In this issue we present people who are trying to be wise, people reflecting on some of the questions that arise when one starts to wonder how best to pass on wealth to others, whether it be material, emotional, or spiritual: What should I leave my heirs? Who are my heirs, anyway? How much should I leave philanthropically? Should I give it now or in a bequest at my death? How do I leave money or property to family and not cause a fight? How do I prepare the next generation to handle wealth? What else do I want to leave besides money? What legacy do I hope to leave—not just to my family, but to the world?

This journal issue begins to address these questions. It is intended as a conversation starter—something to point you toward resources, raise questions, and stimulate your thinking. As always, we offer a variety of viewpoints, because it is in hearing others’ views that we are prodded to look more deeply at our own. As we sincerely reflect on the array of choices available to us, we increase our capacity for wisdom.

What does passing the torch mean to you? When you pass on your wealth, will you also pass on wisdom?

Pamela Gerloff

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