The Boomers Dilemma: When the Kids don’t want to inherit the Family Antique ‘Treasures’

There was a time when prosperous Americans eschewed durable consumer goods. Rarely would they buy a mass-produced sofa or dining set. Instead, they bought functional antiques that would hold their value from generation to generation and not be fodder for the dump in six or seven years. Take the DuPonts of Delaware, for example. The Winterthur Museum (a former DuPont estate) houses one of the finest collections of antique furniture in America. The estate wasn’t furnished with antiques for their artistic value, but rather for day-to-day use.

Baby Boomers are getting stuck with family treasures because today’s Millennials—the next generation of heirs for these goods—don’t want them. So, how does one go about getting rid of these items that, in generations past, were passed down to the younger generations?

Baby Boomers are getting stuck with family treasures because today’s Millennials—the next generation of heirs for these goods—don’t want them. So, how does one go about getting rid of these items that, in generations past, were passed down to the younger generations?

For generations, antiques were passed among family members as part of an estate. With each generation, well-cared-for antiques became more treasured and heirs were almost always glad to get them.

America’s middle-class homes followed the same pattern: a family’s “treasures” were passed from generation to generation, even if the treasures were modest. Ultimately, the homes of Baby Boomers became repositories for the trappings of several generations of collectors and hoarders.

It seems like the Boomers will be stuck with these “treasures,” too, because today’s Millennials—the next generation of heirs for these goods—don’t want them. Marketing polls in recent years have “sliced and diced” the psyche of Millennials, and determined that (for the most part) they just don’t want their parent’s “stuff.” They don’t want the overstuffed furniture, they don’t want the boxes of memorabilia, and they don’t want great-grandma’s mahogany secretary.

A recent infographic published in Goldman-Sachs Macroeconomic Insights blog titled “Millennials: Coming of Age” shares its research regarding what Millennials “do” and “don’t” want. Here’s a snapshot:

What Millennials Want:

• Inexpensive consumer goods;
• Social Media;
• Athletic gear;
• High-tech gadgets;
• A “sharing” economy (access to products and services, not ownership).

What Millennials Don’t Want (or are not in a hurry to get):

• A house;
• A car;
• A spouse;
• A television;
• Luxury consumer goods.

A Boomer may have spent years getting a living room to look the way she wanted, but the kids and grandkids won’t find much use for any of these pieces.

A Boomer may have spent years getting a living room to look the way she wanted, but the kids and grandkids won’t find much use for any of these pieces.

A young urban couple sharing a 900-square-foot apartment has little room for overstuffed sofas and armchairs. A large cabinet to display china and silver collections that will never be used isn’t needed, either. Likewise for the roll top desk, the entertainment center, the grandfather clock or the Onkyo stereo system with free-standing speakers, woofer, amplifier, turntable, tape and CD player, and equalizer.

What the kids do want is functional, lightweight furnishings that can be moved easily when they get their next job (91 percent of Millennials expect to stay at a job less than three years, according to the Future Workplace infographic “Multiple Generations at Work”). Instead of collections of books, they carry Kindles or tablets. Instead of big-screen TVs, they watch movies on their laptops. Instead of collections of movies and music, they stream from the web. Instead of owning and maintaining a car, they live near public transportation or in cities where they can call a taxi or an Uber.

Consequently, Boomers are in a tight spot: they have McMansions full of once-expensive do-dads that few people want. Boomers are downsizing at an incredible rate: according to the AARP, for the next 18 years, about 8,000 Boomers per day will retire. Estate, auction, and consignment companies are brimming with inventory from Boomers downsizing. With supply high and demand low, the market for pricey, second-hand consumer goods has crashed, and still has a ways to go before it hits bottom.

This supply-demand argument is perfectly logical and accepted by most until the time comes to liquidate their own possessions. Most of us are emotionally invested in our belongings: they reflect who we are and what we have accomplished. When our heirs don’t value our possessions as much as we do, it’s as if we are devalued as well. Downsizing can be emotionally wracking.

More than once, I’ve heard from the children of Boomers about parents who put their treasures into storage because the kids didn’t want them and they “weren’t going to sell them for pennies.” Then, they paid storage fees until they passed away or until the contents of the storage unit mildewed. Ultimately, these items ended up in an auction or in a landfill anyway.

A workshop full of tools—used to repair, refurbish and repurpose items—are not of much use for a generation that would rather throw out and replace.

A workshop full of tools—used to repair, refurbish and repurpose items—are not of much use for a generation that would rather throw out and replace.

How, then, are Boomers to approach liquidating their possessions?

• First, come to terms with the fact that one’s consumer goods are likely worth only 5- to 10-percent of what was paid for them. From this amount, deduct selling or consignment fees;
• Have collections appraised. In the past 20 years some collectibles have dropped in value (Victorian furniture, for example) while others have risen;
• If one’s heirs aren’t interested in the collections, sell them sooner rather than later. For selling collectibles, use a company with national reach (or eBay, if you must);
• If downsizing, take only enough of your furnishings to be comfortable in a new home. Then, call an auction or estate sale company to liquidate the rest. Don’t attend the sale. You don’t want to know how much individual items sold for; just take the settlement check. Make sure that the liquidators leave the home “broom clean” when they’re done so a Realtor can sell it.

Ultimately, downsizing is a matter of mindset. Many of my clients have found the University of Minnesota’s “Who Gets Grandma’s Yellow Pie Plate” to be very helpful in dealing with the emotional issues surrounding downsizing and inheritance issues.


Wayne Jordan is a Virginia-licensed auctioneer, Certified Personal Property Appraiser and Accredited Business Broker. He has held the professional designations of Certified Estate Specialist; Accredited Auctioneer of Real Estate; Certified Auction Specialist, Residential Real Estate and Accredited Business Broker. He also has held state licenses in Real Estate and Insurance. Wayne is a regular columnist for Antique Trader Magazine, a WorthPoint Worthologist (appraiser) and the author of two books. For more info, visit Wayne Jordan Auctions or Resale Retailing with Wayne Jordan.

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