CHICAGO — Cindi Copeland can’t bear the thought of parting with the cedar hope chest her grandmother received as an engagement gift in the 1930s. She cherishes — but never uses — the Blue Garland china her mother acquired with grocery stamps. And she’s just as fond of the nearly 1,000 slides from her grandfather’s vacation in Europe a half-century ago.
Her sons don’t feel the same way.
As the oldest of her four siblings, Copeland, 54, is the family’s memory keeper. Heirlooms that belonged to her parents and grandparents are displayed throughout her home, alongside several from her husband’s side of the family as well as their own acquisitions.
Copeland’s sons, ages 19 and 25, have expressed little or no interest in her collection. “I feel a connection to it because I know the stories behind it,” she said. She wants her boys to care but, “When I was their age, I didn’t care either.”
Passing 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 send family treasures to the landfill.
“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. What they regard as 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 Boomer Burden: Dealing With Your Parents’ Lifetime Accumulation of Stuff.
“They end up setting those kids up for a burden [when they die]. So in the children’s haste to get rid of it, it goes into a family yard sale for $10,” she said.
As their parents die, baby boomers from 48 to 66 are expected to be on the receiving end of the largest transfer of wealth in history: $8.4 trillion in the U.S. alone, according to the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. Among the two-thirds of boomer households expected to receive an inheritance, the median amount is $64,000.
But boomers have a different idea about what’s important than their elders, who lived through the Great Depression and spent their lives accumulating possessions that they could leave to their children.
A study by the investment firm U.S. Trust found that fewer than half of wealthy boomers say leaving their children a monetary inheritance is a priority. One in four said they were concerned that money would make their children lazy, and one in five said their children would probably just waste it.
According to another study by Allianz Life Insurance Co., 86 per cent of boomers said inheriting family stories and traditions is more important than inheriting money.
They are more likely to place value on things that have passed down through the family, Hall said.
Baby boomers have to deal with so much stuff because the previous generation — the Depression generation — were pack rats. “Those from the Depression era felt like they were leaving their children a legacy,” said Hall, who owns an estate sale and liquidating business in Charlotte, N.C. “And the boomers absorbed it all.”
Their homes are bursting with their own collections, from Beatles albums to Christmas tree ornaments commemorating the birth of their children. When their parents die, boomers provide a new home for the remnants of another era. Each piece has a story, and the memory keepers know it well.
But boomers’ children, who range in age from their 20s to early 40s, often aren’t as independent as their parents were at a young age.
Those younger than 30, known as millennials, are much slower to start a career and buy a house, said Paul Taylor, executive vice-president at Pew Research Center. About 40 per cent either never left home or have moved back in with their parents.
Some boomers are starting to downsize in an effort to make their own lives less cumbersome.
When Stephen Thompson’s parents died several years ago, his inheritance included heirlooms that had passed to his mother from her mother.
He made room in the house for the dining room furniture, his mother’s Hummel collection, and a bookshelf and sewing kit his father built.
His two daughters have told him they aren’t interested in any of it.
“My parents were products of the Depression, and they held on to everything,” said Thompson, a 59-year-old college professor. “I don’t want to leave my kids with the same mess my parents left me.”
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