Getting Ready for the Great Transfer and How to Make It Easier

We're getting ready for the Great Transfer.

Our family isn't alone.  Sorting, storing, and disposing of old family belongings is a labor-intensive challenge that will affect more and more people over the next decade as Baby Boomers age.  And my parents-in-law belong to the generation before Baby Boomers – my husband Jon and I, born in 1960, are young Baby Boomers ourselves.

A labor-intensive challenge

My husband has been spending two days every month keeping the house, barn, and nine acres that belonged to his parents from falling too far into disrepair.  This basic maintenance and regular upkeep have fallen to Jon since we live the closest.  He and his three brothers have just put their parents' long-time home on the market.

My mother-in-law moved to Arizona to live across the street from Jon's oldest brother 19 months ago.  She took plenty of furniture, kitchen items, linens, paintings, and more with her, but left a ton of stuff that had been squirreled away for 58 years.

I realize that this is a problem of affluence.  Families in the U.S., Canada, many parts of Europe, and in other well-to-do areas around the world are dealing with this generational transfer of belongings, but there are undoubtedly many millions of people who would simply shake their heads at how much stuff we've managed to cram into our living and storage spaces.

Why do we own so much?

If we're honest, most of us realize that we don't need a large part of the things we have accumulated.  My mother-in-law moved perhaps 20% of what was in her long-time home, and her two-bedroom condo is abundantly full.  She has what she needs and what she wanted to take with her – the family heirlooms that mean a lot to her.  By her own choices it seems that what's left in the family home is unneeded and unloved.

Or simply unknown.  Who knows what's buried in a box that has resided in the basement since my husband was three years old?  The boxes they've opened so far have revealed no treasures.

I've heard the arguments that people of the Silent Generation kept everything because they went through the Depression and World War II.  And that may be true.  When you're unsure at what point you might lose your job or your house, keeping something "just in case" makes a bit more sense.  That still doesn't make five quart jars of miscellaneous nails, screws, nuts, washers, etc. any more necessary, but I suppose it provides an explanation.

However, the Baby Boomer generation grew up with increasing affluence, planned obsolescence, and ever-changing pop culture.  That might explain constant shopping and over-buying, but not a tendency to hang on to everything forever.

My generation needs to stop accumulating, because we definitely have more than enough already, but why are we filling our garages, attics, basements, and off-site storage?  Aren't we the Disposable Generation?  (The picnic scene from Mad Men, season 2, when Don Draper throws his empty beer can and his wife Betty leaves all the garbage on the ground in the park is quite realistic for that era.)

Now, please don't get the idea that I'm advocating that we all downsize by tossing our stuff into a handy landfill.  Some things may need to go there, but other things can be sold or donated.  Simply dumping everything isn't minimalism – it's irresponsibility.

Related article:  What Do You Do With All of Your Stuff?

Could you be happy with less?

The really important takeaway from this clearing-out-the-house situation that most of us will experience (and that our children will have to deal with in a few years if we don't take care of it ourselves now) is that we need to stop buying so much.  We need to stop replacing and upgrading all the time.  We need to take some of those old Depression-era slogans to heart:  Use it up.  Wear it out.  Make do.  Do without.

We can live in great comfort without continually buying stuff.  Our consumerist society tells us that's impossible, but it isn't.  I've been doing a Buy Nothing Year, and I'm just going to say – I already have so much that it's not that hard.  Of course I buy food and gasoline and shampoo and toilet paper and haircuts.  I bought some new summer shirts because I had only three.  I bought a baby gift and a wedding gift from people's registries, and some birthday books for my 3-year-old-grandson.

Related article: Buy Nothing Update

I've managed to reduce my dependence on fancy coffee drinks, my desire to own the latest bestselling books, and my fondness for blockbuster movies.  That doesn't mean I haven't enjoyed some good coffee and entertainment, but a homemade brew, a few e-books, the public library, Netflix, and season tickets (purchased last fall) for our community playhouse have been ample.

Shopping is something that I realize I've done because I was bored.  Or because I believed the lie that every occasion requires new clothes.  Or because someone else was doing it.  Or because something was cleverly advertised or on sale.

The Great Transfer of accumulated stuff will be so much easier if we buy things we need and then use them up or wear them out.  It will be so much easier if we make do with what we already have or simply do without so much.  That doesn't mean we never have any fun, entertainment, or enjoyment.  But we could place some limits on how much we add.

Related article:  How Limits Help You Become More Creative

I realize I'm probably treading on dangerous territory right now.  If you have a large fabric stash, a growing collection of vinyl records, or a display case filled with superhero figurines, you might think I'm pointing a finger at you.  If you just bought a Peloton bike (because you really ARE going to get in shape this time) or yet another Apple product, you might feel like telling me where to get off.

But honestly now, do you need a "smart" home?  Or do your brain and body still function reasonably well?  Do you need another frog or unicorn or bobblehead, or do you already have more than enough?  What exactly do you envision your heirs doing with all of your pro team jackets, scrapbooking tools, Lego architecture sets, Swarovski animals, and DVDs?  Do you need more mass-produced d├ęcor from Home Goods, and if so, why have you stopped enjoying the stuff you bought there just last year?

I'm not judging, because everything I've listed is something I or a loved one has purchased at one time or another.  But this stuff doesn't go away.  You can sell it, donate it, give it to your child, or toss it in the garbage, but it won't degrade for hundreds, maybe thousands of years.  We're stuck with every bit of crap we over-produce and over-purchase.

Comfortable today, less burden for tomorrow.

If we ever did find ourselves in a situation similar to the Great Depression, I think we'd figure out pretty quickly that none of that stuff was important.  (Okay, the fabric stash might come in handy.)  If we went through a period of rationing, like during World War II, we'd care much more for where and how we would get meat and eggs, gas, tires, and sturdy shoes.

I think we can make our homes comfortable for life today without making them a burden for our children in the future.  The Great Transfer doesn't have to be such a heavy load.

Let's be the generation that leaves a few pieces of well-used and useful furniture, a small number of meaningful keepsakes, and a legacy of kindness, generosity, love, and laughter.  And possibly some money that we didn't waste on fashion and tchotchkes.

Are you tired of the stress and frustration clutter brings?  Do you want focus and peace, but don't know where to begin?

My book, Uncluttered: How Minimalism Can Help You Thrive,* is a comprehensive handbook for a simpler life – not a one-size-fits-all approach, but a creative, encouraging, multi-faceted guide to help you

  • remove the stuff that's bogging you down
  • uncover a cleaner, more spacious home that welcomes and supports you
  • escape the consumer treadmill
  • overcome bad habits and practice better ones
  • highlight your favorite belongings and memories
  • find time for what you care about
  • and more!

You can be happier with less, and this revised and expanded edition of Uncluttered will show you how.

* This blog is reader-supported.  If you purchase through my links, I may earn a small commission.


  1. Karen, you are a great writer! I have been reading your blog for some time now, and the articles are always well written and inspiring. I have been decluttering since 2007. I have no children and I don’t want my niece to have a difficult time disposing of my belongings someday. I used to be a collector of all things “old”. One day I was just over it. Life is so much easier now with less to clean. Thank you for all your articles!

    1. Hi Brenda, I appreciate your comment! I think the collecting bug was instilled in childhood -- I mean the idea that you "should" collect something. My uncle, who was stationed in Germany, gave me European coins and stamps. My mom gave me a silver charm bracelet, so I collected those. Barbie clothes. Holly Hobbie items. The gift of a rock polisher means that now you collect pretty rocks, right? Everything grew.

      It can be a hard mindset to change, so congratulations! Today I collect pictures of my grandsons on my phone (and print a VERY few to add to the family scrapbook). Otherwise, I believe I'm done, and you're right. Life is so much easier.

  2. This is a problem for many people, and not just the boomer kids. My partner and I moved his mother into assisted living in 2018 at 92 and spent over 2 years emptying the large suburban house they had lived in for 60 yrs. We both were working f/t the entire stretch, and it was BRUTAL. Every closet, drawer, cabinet, space PACKED with stuff. 2 large bedrooms in this 5 bedroom house were 'shrines' to 2 siblings who had died fairly young- untouched since they left for college. A solid 60-70% was trash. We hauled 2 large dump truck loads to the dump. I must have made 2 dozen packed SUV load drops at goodwill, plus 'free' piles at the curbside. We donated and recycled all we could, but it was horrifying. I've always leaned minimalist, but we have both been purging, selling, giving away relentlessly ever since. We are determined that our kids-we each have 2- can empty our places in a weekend. Plan ahead! It's so freeing and luxurious to have SPACE.

    1. Hi Kris. Every time I write about this subject it strikes a chord. Thank you for sharing your experience, because maybe it will inspire someone else to begin decluttering today!


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