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?

Was the US at a point where “every good American deserved a McMansion”?

I’ve seen claims like this before but here is a great example of a broad description of how McMansions contributed to the American economic crisis:

A worrying and much commented on aspect of America’s Great Recession was that very few people saw it coming.

The autopsy revealed many obvious causes — the artful bundling and trading of bad debt, the notion that every good American deserved a McMansion in the suburbs whether or not he could pay for it, instituting big tax cuts and massive spending increases, pervasive debt, everywhere.

These were mostly ignored until it was too late.

What intrigues me here is not the argument that the construction of and mortgages provided for McMansions and other large houses contributed to the economic crisis. They did. However, the argument here is that Americans thought they deserved McMansions and other goods. Is this true? It is one thing to have the credit available to make such big purchases but another thing to have a pervasive ideology that everyone deserves such an opportunity. The real problem then was not McMansions but materialism and excessive consumption. This is why McMansions are often mentioned in the same sentence with SUVs: both have become symbols of unnecessary but wanted consumer goods.

This is the reason I have wondered repeatedly on this blog whether American consumer patterns will change once (if?) the economy turns around. Because of the downturn, it is more difficult to purchase and build things like McMansions. But, if the economy turns around, will people again turn to unnecessary consumer goods? A number of commentators have suggested spending patterns will change, particularly for younger adults who will have or want to delay purchases like cars or houses. Yet, we will have to wait and see and see whether the economic status of today sticks around for a long time or not and then how people respond.