This Thanksgiving, Should You Just Say No to More Stuff?

Cluttered household items

We’re going to my in-laws for Thanksgiving as we do every year, and as with every trip, I’ll look forward to the food, to seeing my kids with all four of their grandparents, and to participating in a fun game I’ve dubbed, “Do you want this?”

The game goes like this: At some point during every visit, my mother-in-law takes me and my husband down to the basement, with my father-in-law in tow to show us several items that she wants us to take with us back to Pittsburgh. My father-in-law will sometimes pipe up that he’s not quite ready to let one of these items go or insists there is a cover to one of the pots or serving pieces my mother-in-law is offering. We say yes to some items, no to others, and then it’s over until our next visit.

I hadn’t given much thought to this ritual until I read a news report suggesting that I’m very much part of a unique moment in time: The era of the decluttering baby boomers. It seems my husband and I are not the only ones on the receiving end of a mass migration of stuff, collected over years, by now-aging couples who are desperately hoping their children will take their collectibles, housewares, and knick-knacks into their homes and their hearts. In many cases, it isn’t going as well as the parents had hoped.

It seems some boomers have decided to downsize along the lines of Marie Kondo, and yet although they want to get rid of what doesn’t “spark joy,” they also don’t want those things leaving the family. Instead, as retired nurse Christine describes it, “We don’t want to take it to the Goodwill; we feel like they should take it, and they should want it—but they don’t.” Christine did manage to get her daughter in Denver to accept two porcelain dogs that have been in the family for generations, but that won’t work for everything she wants to unload. “This next generation just looks at it like, ‘what a pile of crap,’” she sighed.

Christine’s daughter-in-law, Cathy, and son, Mark, see it a bit differently. “They’ll give it a back story—‘It was Poppy’s and he had it in his house for however long,’” said Cathy. “For the most part we’ll say ‘yes’ and we’ll just be really angry about it on the inside.” Thirty-three-year-old Joe Ewaskiw sees it a bit more like I do. When he visits his parents near San Diego these days, Joe relates that “Mom has a whole set of things laid out. It’s like a little garage sale just for me.”

This wealth transfer between boomers and their offspring is obviously more than just the clash of styles but of values as well. How do families define heirlooms when one generation—known for its materialism and consumerism—wants to unload its stuff on the next? As well, some of this trouble is the result of prosperity, especially when children don’t necessarily need or want the same “valuables” as their parents.

It used to be that very few things passed between generations—most people had less stuff than we do today and most likely what they had ended up passing from one generation to the next after death. These days, older couples are deciding to retire, move, and downsize early in order to make their lives easier. As the recently and dearly departed Leonard Cohen explained to David Remnick about his life in old age, “At a certain point, if you still have your marbles and are not faced with serious financial challenges, you have a chance to put your house in order. It’s a cliché, but it’s underestimated as an analgesic on all levels. Putting your house in order, if you can do it, is one of the most comforting activities, and the benefits of it are incalculable.”

Let’s agree that couples who decide to downsize are indeed performing a service for their heirs in that they are not leaving the job of cleaning out a lifetime of mementos and household goods to the next generation. Instead, and like my in-laws, they are choosing to make decisions about disposing or keeping their possessions while they are of sound mind and body. While it may seem an imposition to insist that kids take some ugly figurine or yet another framed collectible, at least these folks aren’t fobbing the whole project off on their kids after they’ve passed into the realm where you can’t take it with you.

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