Nobody Wants the Family Heirlooms Anymore

This story is part of Treehugger's news archive. Learn more about our news archiving process or read our latest news.
My mother-in-law's tea cups are parked in my dining room. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

As an architect, being a minimalist is part of my training. It took 30 years for me to find acceptable dining room chairs. I don’t like clutter. Yet cluttering up my dining room is an old library cabinet filled with teacups and dishes that belonged to my late mother-in-law, items that my wife is not willing to part with.

My daughter was just setting up house when her grandmother died, so at least the dining room set and sideboard found a home. But for many people, it's not so easy. Most baby boomers are already established and don’t need more stuff when they inherit it from their parents, and their millennial kids either don’t like it or don’t have a place to put it.

Writing in Next Avenue, Richard Eisenberg notes that nobody wants the big old stuff anymore. “Dining room tables and chairs, end tables and armoires (“brown” pieces) have become furniture non grata. Antiques are antiquated.” One expert in getting rid of stuff moans about the millennials:

“This is an Ikea and Target generation. They live minimally, much more so than the boomers. They don’t have the emotional connection to things that earlier generations did. And they’re more mobile. So they don’t want a lot of heavy stuff dragging down a move across country for a new opportunity.”

Or, more likely, they don't have the kinds of careers that let them live in places with the room for all of it.

How then, do we get rid of stuff?

Getting rid of stuff is hard, and it takes time. According to Eisenberg, it’s best to start early, while the parents are still around. Try and learn the history, the stories of stuff. You never know, some of these items might have real value. (Alternatively, the older generation might just start giving it all away, I have an old aunt who, every time I visited, would insist I take something home; once it was a can of barbecue lighter fluid left over from the '70s. That’s one way to clear out a garage.)

Eisenberg has lots of other tips but the final one is the most important and most realistic:

Perhaps the best advice is: Prepare for disappointment. “For the first time in history of the world, two generations are downsizing simultaneously,” says [moving expert Mary Kay] Buysse, talking about the boomers’ parents (sometimes, the final downsizing) and the boomers themselves. “I have a 90-year-old parent who wants to give me stuff or, if she passes away, my siblings and I will have to clean up the house. And my siblings and I are 60 to 70 and we’re downsizing.”
garage sale
Take some books! Please!?. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

This is so true. My mother-in-law moved out of her house around the time we were renovating and downsizing our own home; we literally couldn't give the stuff away — hers or ours. We tried, using Freecycle and holding a big open house, but we still had stuff left over. Now that we live in a much smaller space, there's not much room for anything I might want when my 98-year-old mom moves on from her apartment, which is chock full of stuff.

Chandelier over stairwell
My mother-in-law's crystal chandelier lights up the stairs now. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

Not only have tastes changed, but the way people think about stuff has changed; our needs have changed. Few people have formal dining rooms or a place for crystal chandeliers. (I stuck my mother-in-law's over the stair landing.) With today’s disposable culture, it's cheaper to buy a sofa from IKEA than it is to hire a truck and a mover for grandma’s giant sofa. Much of the older furniture won’t fit in today’s smaller condos; some of it won’t even fit in the elevator. Antique dealer Carol Eppel concludes:

“I don’t think there is a future for the possessions of our parents’ generation. It’s a different world.”

So, learn what you can about your parents' or grandparents' possessions and think about if there's any value there, emotional or financial. If you don't have room, you already know the answer — and you might as well have that difficult conversation sooner rather than later.

UPDATE: we have written a second post to pick up on the issues raised in comments and provide more resources. Read The story of (getting rid of) stuff