Millennials Don’t Want To Keep Family Heirlooms

As a financial planner, I mostly help folks navigate the ins and outs of their monetary and retirement goals. But sometimes clients ask me for more personal advice.

Take for instance my recent conversation with a client I’ll call Gail. She and her husband are getting ready to move from the large house in which they raised their family to a more modest abode. The relocation is based on a desire to live closer to her family in a home better suited for just Gail and her husband.

Gail lamented that she has many treasured possessions that she’s collected over the years that she wants to pass on to her three adult children. But rather than receiving the gifts with enthusiasm, her children are lukewarm at best about the idea.

This is an increasingly common dynamic in families. More older Americans are choosing to downsize, whether for financial reasons, to be closer to friends and family, or to move to the destination of their dreams. No matter the reason, moving to smaller quarters means shedding some belongings. If you want to share your possessions with your adult children and they either hem and haw or outright say, “No thanks,” it can sting.

Why are so many people facing this dilemma today? After all, things like china, silver, and crystal have long been Hallmark collectibles when it comes to passing possessions down the family line. For generations, these pieces have signified a home well-furnished and well-kept. But for younger generations, things seem to have changed.

Put simply, today’s adult children aren’t embracing cherished hand-me-downs with the open arms of their relatives before them.

This is a new knot in the long-established string of keeping beloved possessions in the family line, a tradition that dates to the 1950’s, and the Greatest Generation’s migration from city apartments to spacious suburban homes. Couples married young and in those days wedding gifts were intended to be treasures used and kept for life.

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These families continued to accumulate significant possessions for decades as they sought status and comfort. But most of these items had meaning – they were worked for and they were earned. For these generations, their possessions were (and are still) treasured.

Decades later, these folks are downsizing and many adult children don’t want their parent’s wedding china. And their parents don’t want this piece of their family history to end up on the shelves of a second-hand store. Herein lies the conundrum.

Today, many young adults prefer a modern style and home goods that they view as temporary or disposable. Millennials trend towards shopping at places like Ikea and Target, which are the fast-fashion of home décor. Retailers like these cater to the concept that you can furnish your home in current fashion, and change it up in five or so years when another trend comes along.

Unlike older generations, there is no feeling of permanence from younger people towards their possessions. It makes sense then that the idea of inheriting long lasting heirlooms from parents or grandparents doesn’t fit with their design plan. And in this new design world of sleek, minimalistic, brightly colored décor, traditional antique brown wood furniture that defined style for so many years seems to have no place.

Another obstacle is that so often, young adults live in smaller houses or apartments than their parents did at their age. Even if they do want to take their grandmother’s antique dining set off her hands, they may simply have nowhere to put it.

So, what’s a downsizing parent (or grandparent) to do when the rest of the family gently declines to take mementos big or small? Breathe easier – you don’t have to pack up and head to the dumpster. In recent years, the senior move management industry has seen a surge of growth, and they’re there to help you downsize in a way that feels good to you.

What are senior move managers? These moving professionals work with clients to help them sort through a lifetime of possessions and to help them make the hard decisions, like what to keep, what to donate, and what to dispose of. The hourly rate for this service ranges from $50 to $125. All told, the final costs of this service come in at around $2,500 to more than $5,000, depending on the size of your home and the number of your possessions. Sometimes these services even help organize an estate sale to offload items to a new home.

For families who aren’t quite ready to say goodbye to certain family artifacts, self-storage units have become another option. Whether for the downsizing parents or the small-space dwelling children, self-storage is a way to give folks time to decide what to do with valuables, without disrupting current lifestyles and needs.  But often this strategy only serves to postpone the inevitable hard question – will the heirlooms stay in the family?

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It’s a hard conversation to have with family members. I’ve heard retirees say they desperately want some item of significance and meaning to remain in the family for generations to come, and they don’t understand why their children don’t appear to want to honor their wishes. On the other side of the coin, I’ve heard stories from adult children who felt burdened by their material inheritance and waited until after their parents passed away to donate what they were given.

There is no easy answer here. And every family is different. What does seem to be true across the board is that this is an emotional topic. Recently, another article on the issue garnered significant commentary from folks on both sides of the fence. Among the comments to the article were stories of readers having found themselves in similar positions (both as donors and donees), feelings of guilt about giving possessions, and feelings of guilt about not wanting to accept possessions.

One commenter related that her mother made her promise to keep certain possessions after her death, and now the items are in the commentator’s basement. Another related that a simple crochet needle was just passed on to a 15-year-old granddaughter who loves to crochet, and has been in the family for six generations.

Both of these stories illustrate the take away –passing down family possessions in today’s modern world is complicated and rife with emotion. To some, vintage brown wood furniture is a mirror to family memories. To others, it’s just brown furniture that doesn’t fit with today’s design trends.

No matter how you frame this issue, remember that while material possessions contain memories, it’s the memories themselves that count. While we want these reminders of the past, we don’t want them to ever be more of a burden than a benefit. So, if your family members kindly decline to take ownership of an important piece of family history, remember it’s not that they don’t love you – they just don’t love your stuff.

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