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In my last post on building a house that could last 1,000 years, I mentioned that a long-term mindset is a core idea of this newsletter. But I wanted to dive into that idea more because it’s been an underlying assumption of Nuclear Meltdown from the beginning. It’s what I was talking about when I wrote about it taking multiple life times to build a village of supportive people (“it takes a village…”). And what my wife and I were considering when we decided to move to be closer to more extended family. And so on.
I had been trying to think of a way to articulate this concept for a while when I came across a mention of the “seventh generation” principle in the book Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them1. The concept comes from the founding documents of the Iroquois Confederacy, which influenced the U.S. constitution via people like Benjamin Franklin who admired the Iroquois. And the idea here is that when you’re doing things, you’re supposed to consider how your actions will impact people down through seven generations into the future.
This concept has been deployed in the context of environmental action — eg solving climate change involves considering the needs of future people etc. — but it's also applicable in the context of social support circles and families.
Seven generations is not a thousand years, but it is a really long time. Demographers typically define the Millennial and Gen Z generations as being about 15 years long, so by that definition seven generations would last just over 100 years. A more practical length when thinking about how long it takes people to have kids might be 25 years, meaning seven generations is 175 years into the future. If you think people will generally start having kids at 30, it’s 210 years.
Whatever definition you choose, though, this gets at the idea that actions by one generation influence people even centuries later. I think of it kind of like planting trees. You can’t really plant trees in order to get wood to build a home because they take too long to grow. By the time they’re ready, you’ll be old or gone. But if your grandparents thought ahead and planted trees, those ones will probably be ready just in time for you to build a house out of them. And if each generation plants new trees, each generation also has what it needs, even if no one is technically reaping the fruits of their own specific labors.
Tree farming is an analogy, but the point is that everyone is better off if they cooperate across time. And in the end, that’s why this newsletter is primarily about families instead of other types of relationships; it’s easy to understand how the actions of one generation in a family ripple down through time2. On the other hand, we mostly choose our friends from a predetermined menu of options that our predecessors wrote before we were even born3.
The seven generation principle also works both ways: The reason the concept came up in Fault Lines is because author Karl Pillemer was pointing out that the fallout from estrangement can last generations, permanently shrinking the sphere from which people draw support, companionship, and joy. In other words, actions do reverberate for a long time whether we like it or not. So the only choice is if those reverberations help or hurt future generations.
I’ve tried to implement a multigenerational mindset in a lot of ways, but a recent day-to-day example jumps out. We recently considered getting a new car. We currently drive a two-door Accord that’s 14 years old. It’s reliable and I’m grateful to have it, but we also have two small kids. Getting them and their car seats in and out of a coupe is not an experience I would recommend. We also have another kid on the way.
So we started shopping around for bigger vehicles4. But there’s a car shortage and when we went to the local Toyota lot they didn’t have a single new minivan. They did have one used van, but it smelled like cigarettes and had a huge gash in the side. The odometer showed about 80,000 miles. They wanted more than $50,000 for it.
We were discouraged by this state of affairs, but the more we talked about buying a car the more we started to think that buying any car was a bad idea. And the reason was because we couldn’t really see any multigenerational benefit to it. As annoying as it is to get kids in and out of a two-door car, our grandkids and great grandkids etc. will probably never even know about that little struggle. Or care. But they might know and care if we take whatever money we were going to spend on a car and use it for something that will appreciate over multiple lifetimes5.
Our recent car experience was a small thing in the grand scheme, though its the kind of decision I’d like to replicate in the future.
More often though, I’ve failed to take the long view. This has happened many times, but I think one of the more critical moments was choosing which college to attend, and then which major to study. Both of those decisions set the course for my adult life. I ended up choosing to become an English major, which was interesting and fun. But seven generations from now, how much is fun and enjoyable going to matter? Probably not at all.
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Headlines to check out this week:
“If our 30s are “the decade where friendship goes to die,” as the science journalist Lydia Denworth notes in her book Friendship: The Evolution, Biology, and Extraordinary Power of Life’s Fundamental Bond, then it’s no wonder that making friends at 40 is more akin to dating than I had anticipated: It’s dependent not only on chemistry and common interests, but also on a shared vision of what your new relationship could provide. Half the struggle is finding someone who wants the same thing you do, and at the exact same time. Here I’m reminded of Miranda on Sex and the City: “Men are like cabs,” she says. “They wake up one day, and they decide they’re ready to settle down, have babies, whatever. And they turn their light on.” In Montana, I’d need to find people who were not just delightful and committed to friendship generally, but also willing to expand beyond those best friends they made at 21—people who, for whatever reason, still had their light on.”
The passage is brief but here it is: “I live in central New York, once the home of the Iroquois nation. Iroquois philosophy held to the ‘seventh generation principle.’ In this worldview, the Creator requires that we consider how our actions today will affect the seventh generation after us. It’s a good approach to considering our effects on the natural environment, but is also a powerful way to think about estrangement.” Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them. Karl Pillemer Ph.D. 2020. Page 93.
As I thought about this idea, I remembered that a while back I wrote about my ancestor Jacob Hamblin, and how he’s also the ancestor of a political dynasty in the western U.S. I had to go back and look at a family tree, but I was surprised to discover that Hamblin happens to be seven generations back.
An obvious example of this is the fact that I live in Utah, not rural England. I live in Utah because I recently chose to relocate to Utah, but also because my ancestors immigrated to the state nearly two centuries ago. It was an option for me, and in the end the most appealing option, because of the ground work people laid before I was around. And as a result I met my wife in Utah, many of my friends live in Utah, I’ve had jobs in Utah etc. Alternatively, I’ll never have close friends back in England, where we originated from.
It’s worth noting that I generally dislike driving within cities and prefer the type of dense, walkable environments you see across Europe. Unfortunately those kinds of places are vanishingly rare in the U.S., especially the West.
We’re still figuring out what to do specifically with whatever money we were going to spend on a car. Financially, we could invest it in something like stocks or real estate that are likely to have strong returns. Alternatively, we could spend it on experiences that would then become part of our family lore. Either way, I’d consider both of those options better investments than buying a car for us right now. That said, we’ll also probably give in eventually and buy something because I think it’s physically impossible to get three car seats into a two-door Accord.