URSABLOG: Family Fortunes

The announcement that the population of China has fallen for the first time since the famine of the Great Leap Forward was long expected, but still made big news. Whether you welcome it or worry about it, or don’t bother about it at all, it will affect us all one way or the other, sooner or later. Demographic changes are big issues, and can rarely be solved by policy alone.


China’s one child policy – further skewed by a predominance of male births – was certainly a contributing factor to the current situation and shows that whilst a state may act in order to keep the population under control, it is parents’ decisions, both before and after birth, that largely dictate how things turn out. This plain statement hides a great deal of pain and suffering, both for families and children. China now faces a new problem: faced with an uncertain future and economy, with housing and education costs spiralling out of control many are choosing not to have children at all. And the state is finding that fertility is something they can restrict but not encourage.


This is not only a Chinese problem: Japan has a rapidly aging population with an apparently reluctant and apathetic younger population, at least as far as pumping babies out is concerned. Other developed countries are to a greater or lesser extent experiencing the same thing. I am not that interested in generalised analyses of the problems and causes of demographic change, but I am fascinated by the individual and personal stories of families, and children, and their parents and support networks.


The best literature and drama – ancient and modern – is usually about families. How we think of ourselves, how we define ourselves, is due in large part to how we were brought up. Those that were lucky enough to be brought up in a loving family will have constant reminders and challenges to who they think they really are. The mental health profession knows this to their advantage as nothing is ever entirely resolved.


I believe that one of the reasons that the Greek private fleet is the largest in the world, is that the majority of the shipowning companies are under family control. Some view this as nepotism and sniff disparagingly. A few years ago, before I became as familiar with Greek shipping as I am now, I probably would have done so too, but now I believe that because Greek shipping is rooted in family companies, and the desire to invest for the future generations is suited to the uniquely asset heavy, risk laden and cyclicality of shipowning.


There is a Greek saying: ‘The grandparents are twice the parents.’ If you are building a business for the grandchildren as well as your children, then your investment horizon will be more distant, your resilience in the face of suffering as the market moves against you will be stronger, and hopefully your willingness to spend all your profits in Mykonos in one summer will be weaker. Perhaps. Obviously it depends from family to family, and company to company, and whilst there are exceptions to this rather unscientific rule I think the cultural and sociological foundations of Greek society encourage rather discourage this investment behaviour.


Does this mean all businesses of this type are superior to others? Their business practices? Their strategies? The working environments? The decision making? Obviously not. One only has to imagine the emotions of normal daily family life transposed into business life. Misunderstandings, stress, communication difficulties, irritability, jealousy, frustration exist alongside love, care, laughter, conversation and dedication. And then there are the more consequential issues like illness, education and lifestyle problems, children, marriage, divorce, and death. Every happy business is the same as any other happy business, but every unhappy business is unhappy in its own special way. I have never known a completely happy business.


Families and businesses are completely different things of course, even when there are family-owned businesses. The point of a business is to be profitable and grow in a way that satisfies the owners, not to provide happiness, unless that is the product being sold. Happiness – both to the owners, shareholders, clients, business holders, employees – may exist, but without profit the business will eventually fail. And the point of a family is…. well, you tell me. Reproduction? Love? Security? Peace? It depends and changes over space and time, to different people as well as to different societies. Mixing both together will not always lead to predictably good results.


Japan has a very strong and diverse family business culture. With the owners getting old, and dying out, these businesses are not being taken over by the children. Many, due to the hard work and encouragement of their parents, went to university and became professionals in different fields. Having grown up in the stresses of a family business many are understandably reluctant to re-enter that life. One solution has been to find other young people that will be willing to buy, or be adopted almost, to take over the business, many times with the original owner hanging around to pass on hard earned wisdom and knowledge. Even if the business carries on however the new generation will surely have different ideas, newer ways of doing things. It must be hard for any owner to let go, whether to a child, or an adoptee, as they have, and always have had, definite ideas on how their business should be run.


Succession is a difficult thing, especially when there is more than one child involved. How are the responsibilities divided? How are disputes resolved so that they don’t degenerate into the same arguments the children had when they were arguing over their toys? Parents, surrogate or otherwise, have to take an active role but it must be difficult to delegate, hand on, and eventually give the business over without a strong culture of respect up and down the generational ladder. It is no surprise that many family businesses garment and then disappear.


And what happens if there are no children at all? Where does the business, the knowledge, the money, the ships go? Who deserves it? Who will carry on the legacy, pass on the DNA that made the company successful? Or is it best just to draw a line, sell up, and go home?


The economic, and indeed political, problems that will be faced by economies that don’t have enough native workers to do the things that need doing, let alone carrying on the enterprises that already exist will need long hard looks at themselves. Immigration is a solution, but one that remains politically toxic. There is no good solution that satisfies everyone. Pretty much like every family argument.


The decision whether or not to have children, for whatever reason – by accident or design – remains monumental. Although for many developing economies a declining birth rate normally goes hand in hand with a rise out of poverty, better education, falling mortality rates, better health care, for advanced economies it is, I suspect, a lack of hope, an uncertainty, or worse, a fear for the future – for an individual, a family or a society – that causes a decline in fertility rates. Or simply people see no need to come out of a comfort zone, or a comfortable lifestyle. Until it’s too late.


I had said earlier that I am not too interested in generalised analyses of demographic change but yet I find myself falling back on them in trying to reach a conclusion. Family life is unique to each family, and family businesses are unique in themselves. What we bring into new relationships, even if it includes new life, upsets the balance of how we see ourselves when faced with the joy and pain, happiness and sorrow, that comes with living together – including the sense of ourselves – as we grow older. As such there is no one right way of doing it, nor can there ever be one, but in my eyes at least it should involve love, self-sacrifice, a desire to listen as well as to act, an ability to restrain and encourage, to take risks without damaging the fabric of what holds us all together. Policy has a great role to play in all this, but so do we. It is the story of humankind itself, it is all encompassing and ever changing, and we are the ones that are writing new chapters every day of our lives.


Best regards,

Simon Ward