I had a conversation with a man not long ago who has the unenviable task of sorting through his mother’s considerable estate, deciding what to keep, what to sell and what to throw away. While sorting, in an act of extraordinary self-awareness, he stopped to consider just what his three adult daughters might like to keep when they find themselves going through his stuff after he’s gone.
During this moment of reflection, my friend had an epiphany: What if his kids don’t want all the stuff he’s worked so hard to acquire?
He was struck by the fact that his adult daughters have no real attachment to all the antiques and precious heirlooms his family has spent so much time accumulating. He went on to observe that his daughters and their partners tend to value instead things like mobility and flexibility. They’ve shown no desire to become curators of a bunch of stuff — even special stuff, really goodstuff.
For one thing, they don’t have the room for it. They live in apartments and small houses. They don’t have any space to house an armoire, no place to stash a dining room table for 12. When your biggest piece of furniture is a flat screen TV, and your idea of rearranging the living room is pushing a stack of magazines to the other side of the Ikea coffee table, the prospect of being responsible for a 12 place-setting china inheritance feels like a commitment on par with marriage, or deciding to take in a stray dachshund.
For another thing, their lives are centered on adventure and experience. They love the outdoors, love to travel. They’re used to packing light. They tend to have a different relationship to “stuff.” Oh, they like nice stuff, to be sure. It’s just that they view stuff instrumentally. Stuff is a tool for the accomplishment of purposes. And to the extent that a nice tool helps accomplish its purpose more efficiently than a lousy one, they value it. The question put to a thing is not whether its value is intrinsic or even sentimental, but whether it’s useful. To their way of thinking, you use stuff to help you do things you want to do, not to make you feel good about things you’ve already done.
And how can we blame them, really? We raised them to think of things as disposable. Sporks, iPods, jobs, marriages — use a thing until either it breaks (in which case, you buy another one) or you don’t need it anymore (in which case, you throw it out and look to the next thing).
For previous generations, stuff was what you spent the bulk of your time working to acquire, then spent the leftover time working to maintain and repair, so that you would have something to hand down to your children. And they to their children. And so on, in an endless string of accumulation and maintenance, world without end. Amen.
But what happens when a generation comes along that doesn’t care about the game you’ve spent so much time buying equipment for, has little invested in the durable nature of the stuff you value? What happens when your kids say, “Don’t give me all that stuff. I’ll just have a yard sale, and call Goodwill to haul away what’s left over”?