I would not let go of my new Matchbox car . . .  

By Pedro Pereira

Some time after my daughter turned 13, her room switched from hoarder’s paradise to desert. Most of her worldly possessions were pushed into other corners of the house. One day, she flipped the switch from wanting everything she could get her hands on to nothing but the essentials – a few surviving stuffed animals, some trinkets on top of the dresser and of course her iPhone.

Scandinavian minimalism took over.

Gone were the legions of stuffed animals she had accumulated. The once-treasured snowglobe collection? The expensive American Girl dolls? The princess dresses? The dollhouse? All relegated to the third-floor landing, which now doubles as a sort of final resting place for Caroline’s toys, games and children’s books.

Where was the kid who cried disconsolately over a broken string on her cheap ukulele?

Caroline belongs to Generation Z. She was born in 2003. Possessions matter little to her. Materialism is largely confined to the iPhone. I’m not sure she has any other possession that she values. Yes, she likes clothes and always has the shoes de rigueur – right now, it’s Vans. But she doesn’t have a bike. TV is interesting but not the obsession it was for me and my fellow Gen Xers. 

Her friends seem to have the same attitudes toward possessions.

I keep hearing about how the younger generation is entitled, materialistic and overly sensitive. Old farts call them the snowflake generation. Old farts are wrong. Either they don’t know these kids or can’t see past the caricatures they’ve conjured up for them. And that’s too bad. 

Because this is an impressive generation. They’d rather travel and learn than own something. They care about diversity, social justice and the environment. Witness the rise in teen activism after the Parkland shooting. As a group, Gen Zers are open-minded and inclusive. When President Trump issued the military transgender ban, Caroline’s reaction was, “Well, that’s not fair.”

Gen Zers see the world differently. They care far less about possessions than experiences. They really aren’t materialistic. And they don’t deserve their bad rap.

Personal Treasures

Still, as refreshing as this anti-materialism is, I can’t help feeling a small pang of sadness. I’m not too attached to material things, but a treasured possession is important. It makes you care about something. It teaches you about the value of things and how hard they can be to acquire.

I grew up in a family with modest means. I spent the first 12 years of my life on an island in the middle of the Atlantic. We lived through a coup – Portugal’s Carnation Revolution of 1974 – and its economically and politically uncertain aftermath. 

My family immigrated to the United States in February 1980. All the possessions I’d valued in my childhood were left behind. I was obsessive about my Legos and Matchbox cars. I bequeathed them to a younger child when we left. It was the right thing to do but I remember the sense of loss from letting them go.

Author with his cherished Matchbox car

Our home in São Miguel, the largest of the nine islands in the Azores archipelago, was in a town called Ribeira Grande (now a city). Every so often my father or mother – or both – would take one or all of us four kids to the city, Ponta Delgada, the island’s capital. This was always exciting. I liked the energy and bustle of our small coastal urban center. For me, trips to the city usually meant getting ice cream and riding the city bus. I’d usually come home with a new Matchbox car. It would immediately become my favorite toy.

On one such trip, my parents took me to a photographer to take a studio shot for posterity. My recollection is vague, but the event has become part of family lore. I am told I would not let go of my new Matchbox car for anything. No matter how much my parents and the photographer tried to pry it from my hands for the photo, they just couldn’t. 

Today, that photo is on display in my parents’ living room with me holding the car in one hand and a prop telephone in another. It’s truly a testament to my obsession with my toys and, well, my strong-willed personality.

Later I would have other valued possessions. In America, I was given two hand-me-down bikes. I quickly outgrew a smaller blue one with a banana seat, which then made its way to a younger cousin. A pink bike, also with a banana seat, served me for years, despite the color and the fact it was clearly a girl’s bike. I couldn’t have cared less. I rode it around the South End of New Bedford, Massachusetts, imagining I was in a cruiser chasing villains or piloting a Ferrari to Formula 1 glory.

My music tapes eventually replaced the bike in importance, as did the boombox my godfather gave me as a birthday gift. As I prepared to go to college at UMass/Amherst, I replaced that GE boombox with a Magnavox twice its size but not even a quarter of its stamina. The Magnavox’s tape motor quit one day after the warranty expired, which meant I couldn’t play my treasured Fleetwood Mac, Stray Cats, Rolling Stones and Queen tapes. On the next trip home from college, I grabbed the GE and rigged it so I could play a tape on the GE and use the Magnavox as an amp. This setup saw me through college.

The father of a good friend was a tailor. He made me a wool overcoat that I wore dutifully through my college years. It can get cold in the Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts and that coat saw me through more than a few snowstorms. By the time I graduated, the sleeves, elbows and rump were frayed. My mother insisted I replace it. I picked some monstrosity off the rack – double-breasted for some unexplainable reason – and wore the thing once or twice before I decided I hated it and let it collect dust for years in a closet before it went to charity.

1972 Volkswagon Super Beetle

Fast-forward to today and I would say my most valuable possessions are my guitars and a 1972 VW Super Beetle, in original orange, which I drive in summertime. No other material possessions give me more pleasure.

As important as all these personal treasures have been over the years, when I look back at what made them valuable, I realize it was the experiences they brought. Whether it was the 

ability to let my imagination run wild while pedaling my bike, the joy and comfort of listening to music on that boombox or the coziness of the overcoat, a possession is only meaningful if it makes you feel something special.

So why don’t Gen Zers have this need? I suspect they do, but it’s different for them. Growing up in the digital age, they have the world at their fingertips. They don’t know a world without the internet. A quick query on a smartphone or tablet can deliver all the information they need about anything. They can see the world through YouTube videos and contribute to its ever-expanding repository of content. 

They can socialize and experience joy, comfort and excitement through their digital connections. And draw inspiration from those connections for their physical world experiences.

Dismissing Gen Zers’ approach to life as aloofness, boredom or even laziness misses the point. We in the older generations didn’t grow up with social media, the internet and smartphones, so we struggle to understand what makes Gen Zers tick. We dismiss social media and smartphones as bad but overlook the positives – the worldliness and open-mindedness these tools engender. Our parents thought MTV would ruin us and their parents thought rock ‘n roll would ruin them. 

Gen Zers will worry about their kids too. Give them time.

Maybe the pendulum will swing and their kids will turn out more materialistic. Whatever happens, Gen Zers are bound to learn something from their kids, just as we are learning from them. 

Or should be.

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