Generation gap: younger Americans don’t want Baby Boomer’s heirlooms/stuff

The Chicago Tribune profiles an interesting generation gap: Baby Boomers are worried their children and young adults in general aren’t interested in their family heirlooms and acquired stuff:

Passing down heirlooms from one generation to the next has long been tradition. But Copeland and many other baby boomers fear that their children and grandchildren will end up tossing the family treasures like a worn-out pair of gym shoes.

“A lot of young people are so transient; they don’t stay anywhere very long. They rent apartments and don’t own anything,” said Copeland, whose sons live at home. “They don’t want to be tied down to family heirlooms that don’t mean anything to them.”

Julie Hall, a North Carolina liquidation appraiser known as The Estate Lady, said this has become a dilemma for a growing number of middle-age people who are trying to come to terms with a harsh reality: Often what they consider to be jewels, their children and grandchildren see as junk.

“Though they have the best intentions, boomers have a tendency to keep too much stuff for subsequent generations, though the kids have already told them they don’t want anything,” said Hall, author of the book “The Boomer Burden: Dealing With Your Parents’ Lifetime Accumulation of Stuff.”

There are several social factors at work here which are noted in the article:

1. There are generational shifts at work from those who were alive during the Great Depression to Baby Boomers to Millennials. This affects things like consumption patterns, family patterns, and where people live.

2. We now live in a more disposable, cheaper culture. For example, the story talks about Millennials preferring IKEA furniture. Such goods are relatively cheap, come in a limited set of colors that match a number of things, and can be traded, discarded, given away, or sold fairly easily.

3. It sounds like Millennials are looking to have less stuff in general. While Baby Boomers might consider these things heirlooms, Millennials see it as clutter that must be stored somewhere and moved again in the future. Certain items may have value to a family but what good is it if it just sits there without being used much? The article suggests this may be due to younger Americans living in smaller spaces (while Baby Boomers have plenty of room in their larger homes) but it could also be tied to Millennials placing a higher value on electronics like laptops and smartphones. It has been argued Millennials are more interested in these personal electronic devices than cars and houses, traditional American consumer goods. Also, Millennials would be more interested in debating how someone’s digital files get passed down.

4. The article doesn’t mention this at all but I wonder if this reflects changing family structures. Heirlooms matter not because they are objectively valuable but because they hold sentimental value. Perhaps Millennials have less sentimental interest in objects? A positive spin on this would be that Millennials value personal relationships more but a darker interpretation could be that they simply haven’t had the same kind of deep relationships that would give objectives meaning. Plus, more Americans are living alone and this could make it harder to endow certain objects with enough meaning for a family member to feel the same way.

5. Another thing the article doesn’t suggest: perhaps Baby Boomers had too much stuff to start with. Is this the sort of problem that only arises in a culture that revolves around consumption and materialism?

21st century problem: “Who inherits your iTunes library?”

If you have made a will, don’t forget to include your digital music and ebooks:

Someone who owned 10,000 hardcover books and the same number of vinyl records could bequeath them to descendants, but legal experts say passing on iTunes and Kindle libraries would be much more complicated.

And one’s heirs stand to lose huge sums of money. “I find it hard to imagine a situation where a family would be OK with losing a collection of 10,000 books and songs,” says Evan Carroll, co-author of “Your Digital Afterlife.” “Legally dividing one account among several heirs would also be extremely difficult.”

Part of the problem is that with digital content, one doesn’t have the same rights as with print books and CDs. Customers own a license to use the digital files—but they don’t actually own them…

Most digital content exists in a legal black hole. “The law is light years away from catching up with the types of assets we have in the 21st Century,” says Wheatley-Liss. In recent years, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Indiana, Oklahoma and Idaho passed laws to allow executors and relatives access to email and social networking accounts of those who’ve died, but the regulations don’t cover digital files purchased.

Another reason to buy the physical version if you really like the music or book.

Thinking more broadly, this extends to a whole host of digital content. What happens to your Facebook information if you die? Your Dropbox account? Accessing your email? Stories about these circumstances tend to stress the lack of formal legal or corporate agreement of what should be done. How about a “dead digital user bill or rights”?

The value of inheritances

Megan McArdle talks through issues of inheritance in the United States:

I don’t see by what right people should be allowed to order living people how to dispose of their stuff after they’re beyond caring.  I think people should be allowed to make generous gifts while they’re still alive, without gift tax. (Though I think the recipients of those gifts should have to pay income tax on it; I don’t understand why we’d want to tax income people get by working, but not income people get by being born.  Being born is about the most tax-inelastic thing you can think of.)  But once people are dead, then I can make a pretty compelling case that in a modern economy where extended families are not a major economic unit, there’s little justice case for inheritance…

Inheritance not only hands people valuable income in return for something we don’t really want to further reward–being born lucky–but also, in doing so, it entrenches the least attractive feature of our economy: the fact that people who are born to affluent parents are much more likely to themselves be affluent than children born to the less well-heeled.  Lack of economic mobility is generally regarded as a bad thing that we should combat.
Yet so many of our institutions, from the geographic organization of our schools, to the financial distribution of our inheritances, reinforce it.  Some of those things are not going away (we should not, and will not, order affluent people to move into poor school districts, or shut down research universities for conferring unfair advantages on the mostly affluent students who have the ability to gain admission).  But what are the social benefits that inheritance conveys to offset its drawbacks?  I think they have to be pretty large to justify letting dead people order us to perpetuate the economic status quo.

So I can make a moral case for a 100% estate tax.

McArdle then goes on to talk through specific situations where inheritances might make sense and suggests in the end that she is wary of putting this into practice because it is unclear how it would turn out.

I think her earlier points are of more interest as Americans talk about meritocracy but inheritances seem to go against this ideal. From the beginning, Americans have had the populist idea that class doesn’t matter in the same way that it did in England. We argue that there should be mobility between classes (presumably this also means people can go down), not more rigid classes where money is passed down for decades. But we have a less flexible system than we imagine – some people can move up but the numbers are relatively low. This is exacerbated when we look at disparities in wealth between different groups: wealth is not then just about passing along hard-earned benefits to future generations but rather about reinforcing the large existing wealth inequalities that hamper American society.

I would be interested in seeing more data regarding what Americans mean when they say they want their children to have a better life: does this come from actions during their lifetime, like by promoting education or particular values like hard work, or from an inheritance that is passed along in a will?