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The kids are alright… but they don’t want your stuff

As our parents age, we move to a new phase of the parent-child relationship and accept certain things as inevitable. Among them: We’ll explain—multiple times—what “in the cloud” means; we will not react to pointed advice about disciplining toddlers, even (especially) mid-tantrum; and, we’ll feign interest in the best way to load a dishwasher, even though we’ve been doing it our way for, like, twenty-five years. It’s what we do to keep the relationship harmonious and to thank them for not dumping us along the highway when we were teenagers.

When it’s time for mom and dad to downsize to a smaller home or retirement community, however, many of us are faced with an ask we just can’t take in stride. From cherry bedroom sets to rare coin collections to stacks of family photo albums, our parents’ dearest wish, ahem, expectation, is that we’ll open our arms (and storage units). Increasingly,

Younger generations care less about stuff

This rejection of their earthly possessions is a bitter pill for many parents to swallow. After all, as noted in The New York Times, “The competitive accumulation of material goods, a cornerstone of the American dream, dates to the post-World War II economy, when returning veterans fled the cities to establish homes and status in the suburbs. Couples married when they were young, and wedding gifts were meant to be used—and treasured—for life.” Given what these objects symbolize, it’s no wonder our parents are loathe to haul them away to Goodwill.

On the other hand, my generation—Gen X—is the product of vastly different social pressures and realities. Bluntly put, we’re squeamish about stuff. In some cases, we moved far away from our childhood homes in search of a job, and when we did so, we traveled light. We watched our parents suffer when the stock market (and their 401ks) went bust, which instilled in us a sense of insecurity and thrift. Add to that skyrocketing college tuitions and the fear that Social Security will run out before we reach retirement and you can see why filling a cabinet with fine china feels frivolous.

On the other hand, my generation, Gen X, is the product of vastly different social pressures and realities. Bluntly put, we're squeamish about stuff.

When it comes to why Millennials eschew Mom’s hand-me-downs, the answer may lie in a propensity to value experiences over things. Theirs is an increasingly rented, reused, and recycled world, leaving little room for crystal wine glasses and antique secretaries. This cohort has rejected material things as status symbols, rendering a great aunt’s silver tea service meaningless.

Changing definitions of ownership and scarcity

Our changing relationship to stuff is more than a passing phase. According to Fast Company, “Humanity is experiencing an evolution in consciousness. We are starting to think differently about what it means to ‘own’ something.” The article goes on to explain, “Even in this strange new world, the economic laws of scarcity apply, and they are precisely what’s shifting. To ‘own something’ in the traditional sense is becoming less important, because what’s scarce has changed. Ownership just isn’t hard anymore. We can now find and own practically anything we want, at any time, through the unending flea market of the Internet. Because of this, the balance between supply and demand has been altered, and the value has moved elsewhere.”

This shift may help explain why younger generations are so ambivalent about accepting belongings from older generations. We can get our hands on pretty much anything these days, tailored to our specific needs and taste. Stylish, cheap furniture from brands like IKEA and Target mean it’s easier than ever to furnish our homes. We don’t need to settle for an eyesore coffee table The fact that many people are delaying marriage until they’re pushing thirty may also play a role. With more couples merging their material lives later, chances are good they already own everything they need, and then some.

Stylish, cheap furniture from brands like IKEA and Target mean it’s easier than ever to furnish our homes. We don’t need to settle for an eyesore coffee table just because it was free.

Another theory about why fewer children want their parents’ cast-offs? The frenetic pace of our overscheduled lives. According to writer Katherine Salant, many family heirlooms are simply too much work: “The silverware that every bride wanted 50 years ago needs regular polishing, the fine porcelain china must be hand-washed and the damask table linens require ironing as well as careful laundering. The pace of life was slower then. Today's families want dishes that can go into the dishwasher and microwave, and stainless-steel flatware that won't tarnish.”

How to just say, “no thanks”

So, how to negotiate that awkward moment when you refuse your parents’ cherished bedroom set? Here are a few ideas to help keep your relationship harmonious, without keeping too much else.

  • Communicate your preferences early, before things get emotional, as in the case of illness or the death of a parent. Initiate a conversation about their stuff before your parents need to move, and let them know your home can’t or won’t accommodate their belongings.
  • Assist with culling items in person, helping parents donate or sell the things you’ll never want, and making the job of downsizing someday easier for all.
  • Differentiate between “heirlooms” and “belongings” and make sure you and your parents are on the same page. You may not want either, but you may feel a small obligation to the generations to come to preserve a family treasure, valuable or not.
  • Weigh the inconvenience of accepting an item against the pleasure you’ll give a family member if you do. Remember that as you age, you may feel more sentimental about your family’s possessions. (My coat closet is full of antique wedding china for this exact reason…so, fingers crossed I’ll be glad I kept it...someday.)
  • Take digital photos of the heirlooms and artifacts that are most meaningful to your parents. Create an online catalog or album, and encourage your parents to add dates and notes for each item. This allows you to preserve the personal stories behind the object, which just might make letting go of the real thing easier.

If the above steps fail to alleviate tensions across the generations, remember that a mix of furniture and décor styles is in style. It’s possible that the gold Art Deco mirror you hated through childhood is exactly what your bedroom of today needs. And if not, get thyself to a DIY blog and turn that heirloom into something you’ll love. (Three words: black chalkboard paint.) As a final resort, there’s always Craigslist. Nobody wants their own parents’ hand-me-downs anymore…but they just might want your parents’ stuff.