The concept of an inheritance is, I think, becoming dated and antiquated. It’s something of a Baby Boomer thing. Those of us who are younger probably understand that the world works differently now. Still, it’s worth talking about. There is a vague dream of a someday inheritance, a financial windfall, that will somehow eliminate all our problems. This is not just a dangerous illusion, but an illusion that can poison ambition and domestic contentment. Kill your inheritance, and kill it in self-defense.
Now, it’s a good thing to think of a legacy in non-material terms. We can be proud of what we’ve inherited from our family when it comes to values and character traits. Hospitality, sense of humor, frugality, ingenuity, a gift for storytelling, grit and fortitude, these are the sort of gifts we should be proud to carry on. This kind of gift is non-zero-sum, meaning it never runs out. The more you share, the larger it grows. You can roll it out and make enough room for spouses, kids, and friends.
All of that goes completely out of the window when we start talking about money, real estate, and material goods.
In my work with clutter, I have seen it over and over again. People will quit talking to each other over a photo album, a single ring, some old furniture, or a stupid teacup. Unbelievable. You’re saying you’d TRADE your blood relation for a piece of scrap that wouldn’t sell for fifty dollars in a pawn shop? A lot of this stuff couldn’t be sold for a bent nickel.
The problem is that grief makes people temporarily insane. It’s understandable. With time and some healing, we’re sometimes able to get enough emotional distance that we can recognize our own irrationality from our own mourning periods. Not likely in the heat of the moment, though. Whatever it is about the old, I dunno, the old 8-track player or the blurry slides from 1958, it seems to activate everyone’s feelings of thwarted power and desire from earliest childhood. GIMME! It’s MINE! Like fighting over the last popsicle.
Then we get to the house and the money. That sweet, sweet munnah.
Back in the bad old days, the land was almost the only thing a family owned. Material goods were expensive and hard to make, and people had very little in terms of clothes, furniture, and housewares. Property went to the oldest son, and the rest of the family had to make do or beg for a place at the table. Imagine being an unmarried adult daughter and having to wheedle your big brother for a chance to stay on and do all the cooking and laundry, because it was that or panhandle in the road.
Then property started to be divided between descendants. Probably more fair, but fast-forward a couple of generations. The first block is divided between four kids. Then they each divide their share between their five or six kids. Then each of those grandchildren has eleven or twelve grandchildren. It doesn’t take long before the tiny slivers that are left are too small to support a family. Or the global economy changes in response to technological advancement, and the world moves on. But somewhere inside all of us is a glimmer of ancestral memory, when our family several generations back were higher in the societal pecking order.
Those photo albums and rings and teacups and old furnishings remind us of a vanished time, a time that we partly believe is our true place.
I have copies of old family pictures from the Civil War through the Victorian era. Look, they’re wearing suits, and fancy hats, and dresses with bustles! Never mind that they probably owned only one or two changes of clothes. I DESERVE.
Some of that genteel feeling, we could easily get back. We could get it by hand-tailoring our clothes in our own living rooms, the way earlier generations did. We could get it by speaking more formally, using appropriate terms of address and ritual politeness formulas. “Good day to you, sir.” It’s not money that they had, so much as stricter rules for social decorum. We’d probably find it unbearably stuffy and restrictive. Personally, I prefer modernity with its electronics, egalitarianism, and endless options.
One of the most dramatic changes of our era is our incredible longevity. Human lifespan has basically doubled in the last century, certainly within the last two hundred years. I’m forty-three and it wouldn’t have been at all uncommon for a woman my age to be gone already. Now it’s not uncommon for a woman to still be up and doing at eighty-six, double the age I am today.
What this means is that our old structure of “inheritance” is going to have to change, the same way the way we think of “retirement” has to change. It was different when the retirement age was sixty-five and most people died by sixty-three. Now a lifetime’s savings and investments will be needed for the next twenty or thirty years of life. A house that would have lasted thirty years, enough time for a young family to grow up and for the owners to age properly, will now be worn out and needing major repairs just in time for that retirement. Buy a house at 35, and at 65, guess what? It’s going to need a new roof, all the appliances are going to wear out, maybe even the foundation, plumbing, wiring, windows, and floors will need to be redone.
How will there be any money left for the adult children after funding the retirement needs of advancing longevity? How can someone fund such a long retirement, working 30 or 35 years to pay to retire for 20 or 30 years or more? How could it be done at all, much less debt-free? How could it be done in perfect health, much less after funding decades of ill health, medications, medical appliances, and surgeries?
If anything, these trends are going to be even more pronounced over the next few decades. At some point, the finance industry will figure out a way to rig new mortgages and consumer debt loads. Individuals will adjust their expectations for their personal longevity, how old they want to be when they give up on their physical health, and how they intend to pay for their retirement. Family arrangements will start to look markedly different. We’ll probably move back to having multiple generations under one roof, and in that case, an “inheritance” might just look like redecorating a bedroom so the sixties-aged kids can move back in to assume caretaking responsibilities, for their eighties-aged parents and their grandparents who are still here as centenarians.
Expecting an inheritance, according to research, tends to lead to more debt and less career success. Today’s reality is that whatever investment money and home equity are there, will most likely be consumed by the daily living expenses of unprecedented old age. This is fantastic, if you actually love your relatives and cherish having more time with them. It’s a bummer, if you’ve always had this lingering hope that they’d shuffle off this mortal coil and leave you enough to pay off your credit cards.
I’m very fortunate to have young parents. They’re still working, and I’m middle-aged, well aware that I need to plan for my own old age. When I “retire,” they may still be spry enough that we can go on vacation together. All I want for them is that they have enough saved to take care of themselves and preserve their independence as long as possible. The inheritance that I desire is a legacy of strength and savvy, and perhaps the secret to a seventy-year marriage.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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