Aging Parents with Lots of Stuff, and Children Who Don’t Want It

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Aging Parents with Lots of Stuff, and Children Who Don’t Want It

Mothers and daughters talk about all kinds of things. But there is one conversation many daughters are reluctant to have with their mothers. What to do- eventually- with mother’s beloved set of Lenox china, silver, and antiques?

The only heirlooms Susan wants from her mother, who lives about an hour away, are a few pictures and her mother’s wedding band and engagement ring, which she plans to pass along to her son.

So, in a quandary familiar to many adults who must soon dispose of the beloved stuff their parents would love them to inherit, Susan has to break it to her mother that she does not intend to keep the Hitchcock dining room set or the buffet full of matching Lenox dinnerware, saucers and gravy boats.

As baby boomers grow older, the volume of unwanted keepsakes and family heirlooms is poised to grow — along with the number of delicate conversations about what to do with them.

“We went from a 3,000-square-foot colonial with three floors to a single-story, 1,400-square-foot living space,” said Tena Bluhm, 76, formerly of Fairfax, Va. She and her 77-year-old husband, Ray Bluhm, moved this month to a retirement community in Lake Ridge, Va.

Before the move, their two adult children took a handful of items, including a new bed and a dining table and chairs. But Mrs. Bluhm could not interest them in “the china and the silver and the crystal,” her own generation’s hallmarks of a properly furnished, middle-class home.

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.

“Americans spent to keep up with the Joneses, using their possessions to make the statement that they were not failing in their careers,” wrote Juliet B. Schor, the Boston College sociologist, in her 1998 book, “The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don’t Need.”

But for a variety of social, cultural, and economic reasons, this is no longer the case. Today’s young adults tend to acquire household goods that they consider temporary or disposable, from online retailers or stores like Ikea and Target, instead of inheriting them from parents or grandparents.

This represents a significant shift in material culture. “This is the first time we’re seeing a kink in the chain of passing down mementos from one generation to another.”

Beginning in the 2000s, though, clutter was out, and minimalism in. Mr. Buatta’s paradigm has been replaced most recently by that of Marie Kondo, whose 2014 book, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing,” remains a steady best seller.

Millennials are also less inclined to want their parents’ household goods simply because they have no place to put them.

As his parents begin to contemplate moving from their two-story colonial home in Annandale, N.J., to a smaller living space, Travis Miscia, a 30-year-old lawyer, would like to lay claim to a good number of his family’s belongings. But he and his wife live in a two-bedroom apartment in Jersey City that is too small to hold them.

“I am very interested in family history, and I would like a lot of my parents’ things on some level,” Mr. Miscia said, “but I have had to limit myself to taking what I would call primary-source documents, like books and some pictures.”

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