Special Session Summary the Intergenerational Flow of Wealth in the Family

Deborah D. Heisley, UCLA
[ to cite ]:
Deborah D. Heisley (1997) ,"Special Session Summary the Intergenerational Flow of Wealth in the Family", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 24, eds. Merrie Brucks and Deborah J. MacInnis, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 242-243.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 24, 1997      Pages 242-243



Deborah D. Heisley, UCLA

In these three empirical studies, the inter-generational transfer of wealth is studied as a means by which consumption objects are used in an attempt to create shared familial meaning. The flow of wealth (in money, property or goods) among generations within a family is a fundamental aspect of a culture. It is a way in which familial, ethnic, and socioeconomic values are communicated and maintained. All three studies come at this issue from a qualitative data analysis approach primarily using interviews.



Deborah D. Heisley, UCLA

Deborah Cours, Cal State University, Northridge

Melanie Wallendorf, University of Arizona

We examine how people define and value heirlooms. Eighteen in-depth interviews were conducted by trained graduate students. Our sample consisted of 12 women and 6 men, representing working class to upper-middle class. Informants ranged from twenty to eighty years old, represented all marital statuses, and were of Judeo-Christian background (including Jewish, Catholic, Protestant). They represented different family structures, including families with adoptions, step-children, various ages of biological children, and childless adults. Sometimes we interviewed multiple informants from the same family. Each interview was transcribed and thickly-coded by at least two of the researchers. For the focus of analysis, we selected the most elaborated and holistically rich coding categories.

We recognized a pattern such that items of high sentimental value but low economic value tend to be called "keepsakes" (e.g. photographs). Items that were relatively low in sentimental value but high in economic value are considered "property" (e.g. cars). Possessions that are called "heirlooms" tend to be high in both sentimental and economic value (e.g. wedding rings).

From the etic perspective, the locus of meaning (whether the value is inherent in an attribute of the object or if the value lies in the representation of people) and the level of shared meaning (whether the meaning is at a personal (self) level, is understood to the family, or is culturally-based) theoretically differentiated and fully accounted for the valuations of heirlooms by the informants. The six resulting cells of these dimensions are theoretically rich for understanding the use o consumer goods in the construction of meaning inter-generationally.



Carolyn F. Curasi, University of South Florida

Linda L. Price, University of South Florida

Eric J. Arnould, University of South Florida

Between 1995 and the year 2000, experts predict the largest intergenerational transfer of wealth in American history. As in previous generations, aging confronts consumers with decisions about how to distribute their wealth and the resulting financial culmination of their lives. In this process, decisions related to the disposition of possessions are fraught with tension. This research project is a phenomenological examination of the fundamental problems faced by older consumers when getting rid of possessions they have accumulated over their lifetimes. It is based on depth interviews with 125 consumers between the ages of 65 and 95 who predominantly reside in the Southeastern U.S. The sample includes both men and women in a variety of living arrangements ranging from their own homes of many years to nursing homes. Compared with disposition decisions that have been described in most other consumer behavior research, older consumers’ dispositions are often precipitated by growing awareness of their own mortality. The disposition of possessions by older consumers is a process that takes place over an extended period of time. Because of the difficulty of deciding what to do with their most cherished possessions, it is not something that is taken lightly or done quickly. There are many mixed emotions about giving objects away prior to death and many situations may trigger disposition of valued objects. Often, the trigger is a conversation that allows the older consumer to mediate the interpretation of the object and attach one or more life stories to that object. Several important themes emerge from analyses of our data. In our results we can see possessions as the skeletal structure or the materials for telling and retelling of a life story. However, there is always a gap between the object and the narrative it represents. Hence, active mediation is viewed as a key to meaning transfer. A particularly interesting aspect of our informants’ comments is that they refer to valued possessions as their own, even though they no longer have them in their possession. It seems they want these sacred possessions to remain symbolically tied to them, even when circulated among other people, in much the same way that Weiner (1995) describes inalienable wealth. Many of the older consumers we talked with explicitly referred to distributing "pieces" of themselves to their children and grandchildren. In contrast to other reports of disposition decisions, our respondents did not seem to feel a loss of self when disposing of possessions that represented who they are and the life they have lived. Rather respondents focused on a type of identity preservation, expansion or immortality. We found older consumers commonly employ a variety of strategies to ensure that meanings are transferred with their possessions. We describe and illustrate many of these strategies including: story telling, visualization, determining the most deserving, meaning matching, giving the gift back to the giver, passing on possessions during a confluence of life transitions, and transferring valued possessions to those most likely to perpetuate their preferred self image.



Mary Ann McGrath, Loyola University of Chicago

Basil G. Englis, Penn State University

A wedding is an important occasion when consumers select "appropriate" gifts. Guests are faced with the perennial questions: What should be chosen as a gift? How much money should the gift cost? What if it is not enough? What if it is too much? Will the couple understand hy the giver thinks this is a good gift? Selecting an appropriate gift is of paramount importance because of the role that gifts can play in strengthening social ties (e.g., Belk 1979; Mauss 1924/1956; Sherry 1983). Yet, these occasions are also fraught with uncertainty (e.g., Sherry, McGrath and Levy 1992; 1993) and risk (e.g., Belk and Coon 1993) associated with giving an inappropriate gift.

In this paper we explore the wedding celebration from the viewpoint of the ritual audience (e.g., Leach 1968; Rook 1985). We emphasize the differing meanings ascribed to the celebration by members of three generations within families of different ethnic orientations, and upon the wedding gifts given by this audience as ritual artifacts (see also Lowrey and Otnes 1993). We consider how the currency of meaning in wedding-gift exchange differs among ethnic subcultures, and how these ethnic traditions of gift selection and presentation are transmitted across generations within a family. Finally, we touch upon reciprocity in wedding-gift exchange.

Thirty-eight undergraduate students were both respondents and associate researchers (see Wallendorf and Arnould 1991). Each was trained in applications of qualitative research methods. Each filled out a five-page questionnaire that related to his or her understanding and experience with weddings and wedding gifts. The students, using identical questionnaires, interviewed a parent or other family member of their parent’s generation and a grandparent or other family member of their grandparent’s generation. Each also engaged in reflective analysis concerning the effect that their subcultural roots have on their own behaviors and attitudes. The study included Irish-American, Jewish, Asian-American, Italian American, and African-American consumers, as well as consumers with Northern European and Middle Eastern origins.

In order to tap both positive and negative aspects of ethnic wedding traditions and their accompanying gift exchange, which frequently involve extended kinship networks and multiple generations, both structured interviews and projective techniques were employed. The written interviewing protocol tapped both the perceived reality and the fantasy associated with wedding-gift exchanges. The questionnaire consisted of a variety of response formats, including sentence stems (a completion projective method), a story-telling format (a construction projective method), several open-ended questions, dichotomous items, and a series of demographic questions.

Questionnaires were grouped into triads relating to the responses of each extended family. The single largest category of wedding gift was some form of money (e.g., cash, stocks, bonds, etc.), which comprised nearly half of all wedding gifts. However, perceptions of what constitutes an appropriate wedding gift varied considerably between generations within extended families. Moreover, we discovered little reliance upon and much ambivalence toward the use of "formal" wedding registries, and instead found more informal means whereby appropriate gifts (and appropriate monetary levels) were identified. Interpretive analyses revealed a number of themes, which serve to shed light upon the roles of ethnicity and religion in this celebratory consumer context. These analyses are also informative in delineating the "sacred" meanings that are sometimes attached to the seemingly "profane" gift of money.



Dennis W. Rook, University of Southern California

Carolyn Curasi’s observation that intergenerational personal property transfers amount to several billion dollars - every year - provides tangible support for my conclusion that the three papers in this session are classically "interesting." They target significant social, psychological and economic phenomena; their findings make you think; they are original and creative, in ways that Melanie Wallendorf elaborated earlier this weekend; and collectively, they represent the leasantly expanding borders of consumer research. I anticipate that the issues addressed in these papers will continue to attract research interest in the future. My comments are designed to encourage this research stream, and I would like to thank Deb Heisley for inviting me to share my thoughts on several matters.

First, it seems that theory about intergenerational transfers is in the incubation stage, and beginning to emerge from the descriptive analyses we have heard today. While these conceptualizations seems likely to mature into more comprehensive theoretical systems, we might also look to existing theory that directly informs some of the phenomena described today. Because older consumers are typically the donors of heirlooms and other property, Erik Erikson’s analysis of the final lifecycle crisis of integrity versus despair strikes me as relevant and applicable here. As the Price, Curasi and Arnould paper speculates, innovative services that facilitate intergenerational transfers will materialize as aging populations grow, not only in the U.S., but throughout the world. The Eriksonian perspective encourages an explicit focus on how such marketplace innovations might help consumers successfully negotiate the anxiety and ambivalence that animates these late-in-life exchanges.

Second, I think that other variables could easily provide valuable analytic leverage to this research. Specifically, use of the still-neglected concept of social class helps identify hypotheses about thematic, content, and process variation in intergenerational transfers. Recent comments from an estate attorney friend remind me that behavior involving millions of dollars and teams of lawyers is very different from squabbling over grandma’s silver, or her VCR. More explicit consideration of social class and status differences will lead to more nuanced observations about consumers’ wealth transfer behaviors and their meanings.

Finally, all three studies in this session imply an intergenerational transfer process that is unidirectional (from an elder to an often younger recipient), and voluntary. This is too restrictive a conceptualization, as an undeniably dark side to this behavior exists. Someone I have known for four decades has been steadily draining his mother’s cash reserve. The first $100,000 was transferred in dribbles and drabs over several years; the most recent transfer was swift and dramatic, and depleted this elderly woman of her remaining $150,000. This disturbing case alerted me to the possibility that some intergenerational transfers are less than voluntary. It seems useful to think about this behavior as occurring along a continuum that ranges from voluntary donation to coercive acquisition to outright appropriation. After all, kids may continue to steal from mommy’s purse. Recognition of the dark side of wealth transfer illuminates some perhaps unpleasant but important and real ethical and social policy issues.