Tuesday, September 29, 2015

A Younger Outlook

If you were to attend a local genealogical society's meeting, you would gather, from what you saw, that genealogy was squarely in the domain of the active-retired population.

Perhaps you would be right. However, signs from the thriving online world of genealogy blogging, as well as through establishment of organizations such as The NextGen Genealogy Network, may reveal a different scenario. Apparently, there are genealogists out there—active, intent on their research, fully engaged in the process and a long, long way from retirement age. Though they may not be found in your local genealogical society meeting, they are quite visible in social media outlets, and just as vocal on the blogging scene.

And yet, the question keeps getting asked: "How do we expand to include the youth?"

I guess I got struck with the opposite reaction when I read the article I referred to in yesterday's post. In my mind, it sorta morphed into "Ten Signs Your CEO Genealogy Society Has an Outdated View of Marketing Building Its Membership."

That question, "How do we expand to include the youth?" incorporated into someone else's blog post, ended up being almost seen as inflammatory by some. I can understand why, but it helps to read the responses posted online in other (young) genealogists' blogs, like Elyse Doerflinger's incredulous question, "Young People Aren't Interested in Genealogy?" She observed that while "each person does genealogy and family history research for a different reason" and that each person may have a different end goal for becoming involved in genealogy,
most people from my generation want to discover a family story and tell it—whether that be in a blog, in a book, in a video, whatever.  Because most people feel the best connection to their past when the names and dates become more meaningful with story.

Don't you find yourself agreeing with that statement? In my opinion, that doesn't sound much different than the reasons "older" people give for engaging in family history research. In other words, perhaps we are too focused on labeling a problem as one based on age—the "generation gap"—rather than seeing it in more pragmatic terms. Our reasons for doing research may be what bind us together, rather than differentiating us.

The way we approach coming together to share our common passion, however, may be what is at the crux of our differences. And yet, those varying modes could very well be the key to the synergy allowing us to make progress as genealogical organizations, working together toward a sustained future.

Though I find something vaguely grating about its tone, the blog article posted at the beginning of this month in Young & Savvy Genealogists re-imagines our genealogical societies, set in the future.

Stop yourself before you utter those words, "Well, maybe that's because you are old," and realize we really need to let go of that concept. We've learned in the world of work to engage in communication based not on labels ("young" or "old") but on explanation of observations about behavior. Putting things in terms of beneficial versus non-beneficial actions would be a more productive re-conceptualization of this dialog.

I find framing any dispute in terms of age to be wearying. Truth be told, I shy away from revealing my own age, simply because I hate to be labeled and put in a box. Age really is a mindset. I love the connections granted to us in this current decade by social media, and the immense satisfaction of instantaneous access to mounds of information at the click of a mouse or the tap of a finger on a touchscreen. I love thinking about the possibilities such technological wonders afford us and dream about how I can better apply these resources. My natural proclivity would be to hang with those much younger than my age cohorts, because that is exactly what they find interesting, too.

But in saying that, I generalize and stereotype. And really, it's possible that "not technology savvy" can be said for some "younger" people by some old-and-hip social media junkies. It really comes down to personal interest. Not the number of candles on your birthday cake.

While the succession-planning necessity facing each of our societies will not go away, it troubles me when a genealogist puts this "age" quandary in the terms of "if I don't like it, I'll take my toys and go home." And yet, that is exactly how this analysis comes off. Again, from Young & Savvy Genealogist:
Historical and genealogical societies of the future understand that reaching my generation is crucial to their survival. Embracing new technology means bringing us into their organization by default. The environment the society creates by the activities they engage in will determine if we will choose to stay.
Does technology remain the monopoly of the "young"? Can no one do technology without operating on their terms—and theirs, alone? I find a hard bargain driven by a demanding negotiator to be the very opposite of the grace needed for multiple parties to come to peaceful agreement. There is certainly a better way to arrive at rapprochement between these two camps.

Since we cannot choose our age any more than we can change our skin color, perhaps in seeking a solution, we can start by putting things in terms of behaviors that can be changed. Ironically, in the very article that I started off by mentioning, the author answered his own question by reflecting on the common denominator which attracts people—"young" or "old"—to genealogy (emphasis added is mine):
You cannot simply sell genealogy as a pastime or a fun activity competing with the entertainment industry; you have to communicate a sense of passion for the entire concept of learning about families. Rather than admonish people about their duty to preserve their ancestors, they need to have some idea that the activity will benefit them personally. Some of us will choose to do research and be involved in genealogical projects when there are many other equally as valuable choices, but we cannot expect others to see the value of doing research without providing an emotional connection between the activity and an increase of self awareness and self esteem.
While that may be the common denominator attracting people of all ages to genealogy, it is not necessarily the same thing as what will draw all people to participate in a genealogical society. Yet, that too will have its draw. The challenge is to determine what that draw might be. The pitfall would be to get drawn into doubtful disputations laced with labels. The task must be all about seeking to identify motivations and behaviors around which we can build collective action for mutually-held purposes.

In leading our genealogical organizations through the changes they must face to become relevant in changing times, we can't couch the dialog in terms of age. For our survival, we need to evaluate the situation we face in terms of actionable goals, and address it through all the tools currently available to us and the skills we can bring together as an eclectic team spanning a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences. 

Above: "Moonlight," 1874 watercolor and gouache on paper by American landscape painter Winslow Homer; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain. 


  1. Good post. Thought more people should consider it so shared to Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

    1. Thanks, Jo. I saw my dashboard exploded with activity, mainly from Facebook, but I couldn't follow the links to see where it originated. Glad to know it was you! I hope it sparks some beneficial conversation--and results.

  2. I think family history - like history of all other kinds, needs to have some readily apparent relevance to the younger folks.

    SO when you can say, your great-grandpop fought at Gettysburg, it makes that part of the Civil War... well, relevant. It also works in reverse!

    1. Yes, Iggy, good point. This thing goes in both directions. It's the relevance that's the draw--the way to connect dry history with living people. It's not just the stories, but the people that it takes to make those connections.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...