This week I’ve been pondering a possible cultural shift that came to my attention in an unusual way: a call from my mother. After I spent half an hour trying to explain the differences between a smartphone and a cellular phone to her, she asked me an eBay question. An elderly relative of ours just moved into a smaller place and thought it was time to profit from the collectibles she had been buying for decades. However, when she went to a dealer, she was told that her Swarovski crystal animal figures and commemorative plates were worthless. “Nobody wants those anymore,” she was told. My mom asked if they could be sold on eBay. I skimmed the pages of listings, noting how few actual bids were placed. “Nope.”
It got me thinking about generational differences in collecting, particularly one type: buying and holding onto new products that are specifically marketed as collectible and with implied or expected value as investments. Commemorative plates or coins, limited edition dolls, figurines, etc. I’m differentiating those from souvenirs and memorabilia, which are reminders of an event or location that was personally experienced, though the owners might hope they appreciate. I’m also separating out collections of antiques or second-hand products, because most of them were not initially sold as collectibles, or collections of anything for personal interest where future value isn’t important to the owner. Flipping collectibles for a profit right after buying them isn’t the same behavior, either.
I’m dealing with a limited sample, but I don’t know anyone in my age group or younger who engages in that sort of collecting. The collectors I know fall into the other groups above; even my friend who carefully protects his action figures isn’t counting on them to increase in value. He enjoys the hunt and displaying them as part of his decor. On the other hand, I know a lot of people — all Americans between the ages of 60 and 85 — who have built up significant collections of items that they may not even enjoy. My relative from the first paragraph has piles of commemorative plates in boxes in her basement. Others have rosy-cheeked Hummels or creepy Precious Moments figurines tucked away in closets and cabinets. Nowadays, buyers for those tend to be in the same age range. It’s not a growing market.
So, why don’t younger people buy new “collectibles” the same way as some Boomers? My husband and I talked about this. He proposed that the last collecting fad to hit Gen X and below was Beanie Babies and that people learned from that bursting bubble (a new book came out about that craze this year, and Slate has a good short article discussing it). Maybe. I wonder if it might have more to do with the speed of technological changes and a shifting worldview.
The speed of obsolescence in the last few decades reinforces the idea that things will lose value. I’ve been around long enough to see my treasured childhood vinyl LPs supplanted by cassette tapes, then by CDs, and then digital files. My Sony Walkman was replaced by a Discman and then replaced by smaller and smaller MP3 players. The computer that cost me two months’ salary in 1996 was useless before I had to worry about Y2K. We can choose to spend a lot of money on a new iPhone, but we’re not planning to resell it for a profit in twenty years. We know that we’re really buying two or three years of use before we’ll want the next model. With the housing bubble, we learned that even real estate — long considered a safe, steady investment — can lose significant value.
I think there’s also a growing anti-materialist feeling. While it might be a minority attitude, it can be seen in the maker and craft movement, tiny house trend, and the popularity of articles about simplifying and removing clutter. Those were characteristics of hippies when I was a kid; now they cross subcultural and economic lines. Combine that with more environmental awareness (reduce, reuse, recycle), the importance of authenticity to Millennials, unsure financial times, partnering/marrying after age 30 instead of earlier, having fewer children who might inherit collectibles, and I have a hard time imagining a 28 year old stashing away commemorative plates.
There’s the other side to consider, as well. Why did/do Boomers buy into the notion of manufactured collectibles? All I can do is speculate, but clearly I’m not averse to doing that! I wonder if the financially conservative attitudes of their parents, who went through wartimes and the Great Depression, mixed with the increased affluence of Boomers to create some strange attitudes. Being raised with a knowledge of frugality and the need to save, but having more disposable income? Perhaps the expectation of future profit provided justification for buying. That goes hand in hand with using discounts and sales as an excuse to buy more things.
It certainly isn’t that young and middle-aged adults don’t spend money, buy things, or even collect. Heck, I know a few people who are passionate about collecting digital items in games or virtual worlds, which may not have resale value in any currency. There are some treasure hunters, too — people who might keep the first edition of a new comic mint in the bag, hoping to resell it for a profit later. But, am I completely wrong about that one type of collecting being generational?
As someone who catches the occasional episode of Antiques Roadshow, I could refute my hypothesis in a simple way: tastes change over time. Often, the things that are valuable in 100 years are those that were popular but then went out of fashion, causing most people who owned or inherited them to hide them away, throw them out, or change them (Ming vases converted into lamps, etc). The items that survive in good condition despite decades of being out of favor can become valuable again. We could simply be in an anti-collectible phase, but in 50-60 years, it could be the height of fashion to display vintage Franklin Mint plates.
Also, I could be biased by my personal aversion to stuff. The only things I actively collect are squashed pennies: they’re inexpensive souvenirs and I can keep my entire collection in a small bowl. When I was younger, my great-aunt gave me “collectibles” — Goebel/Hummel figurines, a plate with Raggedy Ann celebrating the US bicentennial, a plate commemorating the birth of Prince William (it seems she was a little confused about American independence). One of my grandmothers always bought me souvenir silver spoons when she traveled and I kept adding to that collection until I was about 30. I have no idea what to do with any of those things now, so I suppose I’m just another person with a box of worthless collectibles in the basement.