Dealing with the clutter of previous generations

A few weeks ago, my husband and I went to help a friend clear out the family home that needs to come down before it falls down. The house, which fills half a block in a small northern Spanish town, is a 17th century villa cut up into living quarters, a bar, a garage, and now-inaccessible storage space. My friend grew up with his parents, two uncles, a grandmother, and various other family members at different points over the years. When half the house was renovated and modernized, the unchanged part became a dumping ground for all those things no one quite knew what to do with.

The bar has been shut for over 15 years and yet (apart from the dust) it looked like it could have closed a few weeks ago. Every bedroom still had all the furniture, bedding, leftover clothes, and memorabilia from the last person to occupy it. The two living rooms had wall units that were stuffed to the brim with everything imaginable.

I was curious to see exactly what was in the dumping ground, but my friend told me the floors were not safe to walk on, meaning whatever someone had stored two, three, or ten decades ago was now gone for good more or less (perhaps to be rescued when the demolition starts).

A local charity shop was going to stop by to take furniture, wearable clothing, and “anything that is sellable.” That last category was never quite defined, so when it came to clearing out the house, about 80% of what was in the cupboards, closets, and wall units ended up in garbage bags. After two full days, the main living spaces were cleared out and ready for the charity pickup, but that still left the bar, the accessible storage spaces, and the terraces (I forgot to mention earlier the two large internal terraces full of more stuff).

With the sheer amount of junk to deal with, no one suggested organizing it all for recycling. Everything went into the same garbage bags, meaning it would all end up in landfill. And being non-sentimental types, my friend and his cousin were ruthless — photos, letters, report cards, everything went out. Their thinking was “if we haven’t missed it in ten years, we don’t want to know about it.”

That attitude seems to be one that is growing among people my age. We grew up with parents who were born just before the Second World War (or during the Spanish Civil War) and that generation for the most part, liked to hold onto things. My parents (who lived in Canada) were very organized people, but they had a house of over 4000 sq ft plus about six outbuildings. It gave them a lot of room to hold onto a lot of stuff.

My friend is single and works in an industry that requires him to move quite a bit. He has no interest in collecting anything. His cousin told me that as soon as she was done with the family home, she was going to go through her own house and clear out most of the stuff because she didn’t want to leave the same disaster for her own kids.

My brother and sister had the same reaction after clearing out our parents’ house (having picked up and moved to Europe a few years earlier, I had already purged everything I’d owned).

There are lots of articles on inherited clutter here on Unclutterer, but I wanted to talk about my recent experience because it raised some questions for me:

  1. Are Generation-Xers less sentimental and less interested in holding onto stuff?
  2. For those 40-somethings with parents still alive, have you encouraged them to streamline while they are still around to help give context to some of their collections?
  3. Are our children going to hold onto everything because we don’t?
  4. And finally, on an unrelated note, does having a lot of space always mean building up mounds of unwanted clutter?

I’m not going to try to answer any of these questions. Instead, I’ll leave them open to you to answer them in the comment section.

11 Comments for “Dealing with the clutter of previous generations”

  1. posted by Karen on

    I am living with my 90-year-old Dad as his caretaker in the what has been the family home for 50 years. My Mom is already in a nursing home. This home is left to me to inherit. However, it is filled to the brim with their stuff. The very THOUGHT of trying to clean this place out makes me tired and is overwhelming! There are some things I will keep for sentimental reasons, but most of it will go. It makes me feel guilty to get rid of things my parents worked a lifetime to acquire, but I don’t want it all and neither does anybody else in the family!

  2. posted by G. on

    1. I don’t think they are less sentimental, I think mostly they value the experiences more than the things. And the things that they might be interested in are those that are useful to them in day to day life.
    2. While I’m past the 40-something age, Dad never has been one to hold on to much other than photos and a few things that were Mom’s. Once he retired actively farming, even most of the scrap metal and wood piles were gotten rid of. Mom, on the other hand did keep many things from her side of the family, not to mention lots of jars, bags, boxes and garage sale fines.
    3. I suspect the keeping of things just because it belonged to a relative will continue to decline. Housing and storage costs will continue to increase. Relocating for work will continue as “in person” employment opportunities move around the country and remote work setups will enable people to work from anywhere, so why not work from a warmer area in winter and cooler in summer. Or follow the snow in winter if that’s your preference.
    4. I think yes, a lot of space makes it way too easy to “put it here for now”. It’s too easy to postpone or avoid making decisions that will make someone uncomfortable, whether yourself or someone else who tells you what you should keep.

  3. posted by magnoliachica on

    I’m technically a millenial (though at 36 I’m on the edge, and I’m seeing a lot of my peers also struggling against the sentimental clutter. I don’t think we’re less sentimental; I think we’re overwhelmed. The amount of papers that we get through the mail, from work, from our kids. The amount of free stuff, trinkets, cheap toys, souvenirs, and holiday gifts. The decor items that fill the aisles of grocery stores, drug stores, big box stores. We’re inundated with stuff in a way that our grandparents were not (at least at first).

  4. posted by Michaela on

    I am 38 and I began reading uncluttering blogs in 2009, which LARGELY inspired me to pare down everything I have. My mother always wanted me to hold onto everything, which I realized I hated being expected to keep things I did not love or want. It was stressful and I didn’t have the space or time for it! I had to learn a lot of skills over the last eight years about saying no and letting go. It gets easier with time, and when I began it was extremely overwhelming. It was literally one bag, or pile, or item, at a time, for a long time.

    Now after one kid moving out, and a divorce, and even having a fairly empty house to most people . . . I am still getting rid of things. I want to move one day (eventually) and when I go, I only want to take what I love or what is necessary to help me in the next phase of life. So everyday I treat it like I am going to move and I am recycling, tossing, donating, and sometimes selling things. I have encouraged my mother to do the same while she is alive, but let’s just say she is not as receptive to that as I would like her to be (insert angry face!).

    Also, I am much happier with less. Its easier to clean. Its easier to know what I have. And my happiness matters more than any trash left behind from a dead generation.

  5. posted by M.Ward on

    You raise good questions here. Recently I’ve renewed my determination to get rid of stuff I don’t want to keep, mainly cool things that belonged to my father who died ten years ago. It took me several months to go through his home eleven years ago, working with helpers to separate the cool stuff from the donate stuff. He was still alive so I didn’t want to disrespect him selling off his stuff. After he died I did sell things, and now realizing that my loyalty to him and his memory has kept me in a holding pattern, stuck! And yes, he was one to attach sentimental value to things and also a trader as a hobby of cool stuff, so encouraged me to keep things as their value would increase, to sell for profit. I’m getting large amounts on EBay for some of his things now, and it’s liberating to feel like I’m going to move from being the caretaker of his things to my own life, and am being rewarded financially for doing so. I hired an organizer to help me get started and she is a Gen Xer, while I’m a late Boomer. She wanted me to donate everything, and had no idea or knowledge of the value of collectibles. I have some vintage traditional Japanese knives I want to sell and she told me to donate them, yet upon taking them to a Japanese knife expert I learned I can get 100. per knife. There’s a definite difference between getting rid of clutter and valuing collectibles to sell for profit. My sense is that Gen Xers don’t have much of that sensibility.

  6. posted by Bev on

    I helped my parents move twice. First out of their large home and then out of their apartment to assisted living. It was a wake up call. All the glass and plastic items mom had so carefully washed and stored for someday. Jars and tubs and odds and ends. Those are definitely things I toss immediately. Then there were all the other things. Trying to decide what was the right amount of hand embroidered pillow cases to take. I knew I didn;t need/want several dozen, but was 6 enough? Would I regret not taking more? Especially since there won;t be more from mom. Some of it is sentimental, some of it is style, and most of it is just hard to decide. I also know that I am much more ruthless at home with my things now. I know what has value to me and what was just convenience of laziness. The cupboards are getting cleaner

  7. posted by SkiptheBS on

    Second the eBay suggestion. If you have time and patience, inventory and price-check it yourself or pay one of the family’s older children to do it. If not, take out the items you want and sell the rest in a Storage Wars style auction, either by sealed bids or the more typical madhouse. The high bidder may eBay or flea market the stuff but both of you make money.

  8. posted by infmom on

    My parents were born just before the Depression, so you would think they would treasure things, but they didn’t. And they especially didn’t treasure anyone else’s things. If it didn’t matter to them it didn’t matter, period. So things like my dad’s military papers from WWII, my mom’s citizenship papers, family photographs, even a life sized portrait of my mother as a young woman just vanished somewhere and they neither knew nor cared where it all went. And don’t get me started on the treasures that belonged to my brothers and me that just summarily got the heave-ho by parental whim. I have gone on eBay over the years to buy some of them back.

    When my mom moved from California to Georgia she couldn’t afford to take all her stuff so she left a lot of it with us. And never even asked about it again. It took a while, but it finally dawned on me that if she didn’t care, I didn’t need to care either, and I started donating everything that could possibly have been of value. Cartons of mostly unread books to the library, household items to the thrift store, and so forth. I did keep a few things, but for the most part I got rid of all of it. And I never looked back.

    My stepmother offered some of my dad’s things to us four children but when she died everything in her apartment vanished, probably donated, and none of it went to us. There were things my brothers and I would have liked to have, and treasure. But that’s life.

    I suppose there’s really no happy medium for people who only care about their own stuff.

    We’ve been downsizing for a while. I’ve asked the kids (ages 37 and 40) to claim anything they might want to keep, but they weren’t interested. So this past weekend we called the 1-800-GOT-JUNK people and had them haul away about 1/3 of a dump truck full of stuff. It feels really good.

  9. posted by Cat B on

    I am a Gen-Xer, and an extremely sentimental one, but that does not translate to stuff. I find too much stuff overwhelming, and my parents have an overwhelming amount of stuff, that as an only child will someday be mine to deal with. I love people, memories, photos, etc., but not necessarily a bunch of objects, or collections, or furniture. And some stuff of sentimental “value” isn’t my taste, anyway, so I still wouldn’t want to keep it.

    Getting value from stuff by selectively selling it would be great, but if the volume gets too high then it will be worth the loss to just purge wantonly with no regard for the value. Mental clarity has value, too.

  10. posted by Caroline on

    I’m a borderline millennial/Gen X (depending on who you ask) and I’ve been tasked with cleaning out my Depression era grandparents’ house (that was in the family since then and never cleaned out after my great grandparents passed).

    It makes me want to sell all my stuff (I’m in the process of it now as I’m planning a cross country move with no truck). I’ve already told my parents to make plans for their knick-knack stuff before they’re dying because I don’t want them nor does my sister.

  11. posted by Greg on

    My girlfriend’s father is the executor of his brother’s estate. His brother turned out to be a horder, so I have been helping them with selling some of the stuff on eBay. They had tons of GI Joe collectibles, and I was shocked at the prices that I was getting for them.

    I agree with the other posters. It has convinced me to take a look at my collectibles, and to see what I really need to keep, and what can go.

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