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Is it possible for senses of duty, obligation, and responsibility to be harmful for people? Trust and estate lawyers working with multiple generations of people often see sharp generational differences in people’s expectations of themselves and people of other generations. This article considers when traditional senses of duty, obligation, and responsibility limit people’s abilities to choose among difficult decision alternatives about careers, health care, family relationships, religious activity, and other personal issues.

Effective leadership requires effective leadership succession across generations* in businesses, churches, political parties, and almost every other kind of organization. Many of today’s leadership training programs focus on understanding and engaging younger generations because “Baby Boomer Generation” and “Generation X” leaders recognize that their perspectives differ from the “Millennial Generation.”

A perspective of “choice” versus “obligation” subtly distinguishes some members of the Millennial Generation from people of older generations. Older generations often express feelings of obligation about difficult decisions with words like “should” and “supposed to.” People of younger generations also feel senses of obligation and responsibility, but many young people feel free to question traditional expectations and assumptions about important life choices. “Doing the right thing” is more important to many younger people than fulfilling other people’s expectations of them. In some cases, younger people choose the “right thing for me” instead of what their older family members, friends, and colleagues considered to be the “right thing.” This willingness to question and overturn the status quo frees younger people from traditional expectations that burden their elders – a lesson that would benefit some older people to learn.

This article does not intend to portray any perspective negatively, but to present samples of traditional and alternative perspectives to help people “think outside the box” about what is the “right thing” on many topics. Consider these sample statements and questions as food for thought:

  • “I will never put my [family member] in a nursing home!” Does this loyal sentiment make sense if the family member’s health is too fragile to care for the family member at home? Even if home care is medically feasible, will the family be able to provide better care than professionally trained health care workers can provide during rotating shifts in a fully-staffed health care facility? If the disabled family member requires 24-hour care and supervision, can one or two family members physically and financially afford to provide that much care at home?


  • “I am a [political party label] because the [opposing party label] wants to [description of “un-American” objectives].” In today’s politically polarized America, most vocal political activists attack their opponents and news organizations that tend to support the opponents with extremely harsh descriptions. Is it possible that a mainstream party’s chief goal is to destroy the country? Is it rational to believe that one national news organization only reports truthfully, and that other news organizations are purely corrupt?


  • “I am supposed to [attend a particular college, attend a particular church, play a particular sport, hold a particular belief, financially support my drug-addicted family member, etc.] because my [parents, minister or brethren, coach or teammates, family or peer group] expect it of me.” Tradition and heritage are not bad things, but history is full of generational departures from traditions, heritages, and beliefs that were harmful (Bible study restricted to clergy), unjust (slavery), or false (the earth orbits the sun, not vice versa). Each individual must be able to choose what to do, where to go, and what to believe, because freedom, genuinely convicted belief, and personal satisfaction require an individual to choose among alternatives. Blind or compelled acceptance of other people’s expectations imprisons individuals within barriers from which they cannot grow, mature, or thrive toward the potential for which their Creator endowed them.

The Apostle Paul said in the verses 12 and 13 of second chapter of his letter to the church at Philippi:

“Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.”

People differ about some aspects of Paul’s intended meaning, but there would be no reason for anyone to fear or tremble without choice. Choices can be emotionally, physically, politically, and socially challenging, but fear and trembling are necessary elements of some the most important choices. Therefore, we encourage people to get information from all possible sources (even the sources that people criticize) and choose wisely in all of life’s crossroads.

* For more information about generational differences, see The Whys and Hows of Generations Research published online on September 3, 2015, by the Pew Research Center at http://www.people-press.org/2015/09/03/the-whys-and-hows-of-generations-research/.

Jeff R. Hawkins and Jennifer J. Hawkins are Trust & Estate Specialty Board Certified Indiana Trust & Estate Lawyers and active members of the Indiana State Bar Association and National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys. Both lawyers are admitted to practice law in Indiana, and Jeff Hawkins is admitted to practice law in Illinois. Jeff is also a registered civil mediator, a Fellow of the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel and the Indiana Bar Foundation;  a member of the Illinois State Bar Association and the Indiana Association of Mediators; and he was the 2014-15 President of the Indiana State Bar Association.

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