The former Vietnam war correspondent for Time magazine – who donated journals and other documents to Gonzaga University when she made the life change – role-modeled for her then teenage sons how people can live without a lot of “stuff.” But even Miller has her moments of doubt.
“I had photo albums up the kazoo,” Miller, 66, said in a recent phone interview from the Seattle area where she was promoting her memoir “Grandmothers Whisper.”
“One box went to my kids’ father for when they were older. My oldest son is now 31. He’s married. They have a little house. His father said ‘It’s time to take the box of family albums.’
“My son said, ‘Mom, I’m going to tell you straight out. I’m going to pick out a few that mean something, and I’m dumping the rest.”
Miller drew in a deep breath. Trash the photos! But then she realized “I had to shut my mouth.”
A generational revolution is coming as aging boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) begin to downsize. What will they do with all their stuff? Well, they won’t easily pawn it off on their grown kids.
“They will just say no,” said DeAnne Wilfong, owner of Smooth Transitions of the Inland Northwest, a senior moving service. “They won’t feel guilty.”
Stuff: A brief history
Many in the so-called Greatest Generation didn’t have much stuff during their Depression-era childhoods and their World War II young-adult years. When the war ended, deprivation turned to delirium.
“In the four years following the end of the war, Americans purchased 21.4 million cars, 20 million refrigerators, 5.5 million stoves and 11.6 million televisions and moved into over 1 million new housing units each year. The same pattern extended into the 1950s,” writes Elaine Tyler May in “Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era.”
Because of deprivation memories, the Greatest Generation had great difficulty parting with their stuff.
“Our parents and grandparents kept string,” Wilfong said. “I’ve gone into places where I (found) 200 empty butter tubs.”
This generation tried, with some success, to foist those butter tubs and string balls onto their older boomer children.
Bob Scarfo, co-founder of Aging in Place Designs in Spokane, recently lost his 84-year-old mother.
“My mom moved here three years ago from Plymouth, Mass. We got her a house first and then we downsized to senior living. She so badly wanted to visit (her) storage unit. It seemed that she had to have all her belongings around her as an affirmation of her life and who she was.
“Every reacquired item was a potential tripping hazard, and I was concerned for her personal safety. Mom would ask that we ‘just go look at’ the contents of her storage unit. I live with the fact that I denied her that pleasure.”
The boomers, despite bad experiences with their parents’ stuff, hang onto stuff, too. In 2006, the height of the housing boom, the average house stood at 2,349 square feet, double the size of the average house in the 1950s. And the houses were crammed with stuff.
In the next decade, boomers in their 50s and 60s will empty their oversized nests in historic numbers.
Aging experts predict that boomers will downsize to condos, or live in co-housing developments with private living spaces centered around communal gathering areas. Or stay in their homes but remodel them to one-floor living only.
All scenarios mean less space. And the need to shed.
Just say no
Erika Halverson is 28. The marketing director at Broadway Court Estates recently organized a downsizing seminar at the retirement community in Spokane Valley.
Halverson’s parents, who are in their late 50s, haven’t passed on many items – yet.
“I think I’ll feel comfortable saying no to certain furniture, bedding and things that are decorative,” she said. “But things given from grandmother to mother – that I can’t say no to.”
Wilfong, one of the speakers at the seminar, said Halverson’s generation, especially those who have embraced green and minimalist movements, will be honest with their parents.
“They will say, ‘I don’t want that. Give it to someone who needs it.’ Or, ‘Mom, sell it and give the money to your charity.’ ”
The younger generations still want stuff, especially when they are young and broke. But they are picky, and may prefer strangers’ items that carry less emotional baggage.
After his mother died, Scarfo, who is also a landscape architect who teaches at Washington State University, gave away many of her things to his students.
“I had a list of things I shared with students, like the dining room table and chair, the hutch and some bedroom furniture. They came and got it.”
He put a table outside his office filled with his mother’s stuff – DVD players, cookware, radios, alarm clocks and music CDs.
“Mom would have loved knowing that her stuff would be helping others,” he said.
Ultimately, aging boomers will discover that shedding equals freedom.
Miller still lives in Hawaii with the love of her life, now her husband, and with few possessions, though the couple no longer live in tents and cars.
“I’ve learned that my true worth is not dependent on those needlepoint chairs or those Oriental rugs or my treasured artwork or my collection of books,” Miller said. “There are whole levels of protecting your stuff that I feel freed of.”
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