I was asked a question recently about how we could expand the field of genealogical research to include a younger-aged participation. I have thought a lot about this and see several really difficult challenges to including a broader age range of participants. The following conclusions are based on my own perspective and impressions I have of the genealogical community and my contacts with youth over my lifetime.
When I spoke recently in St. George, I looked out on an audience where the vast majority were well along in years. I saw very, very few young faces. So why is this the case? Where has the public relations for genealogy gone wrong? It should be noted that genealogy or doing research are not listed as "Selected Leisure Activities" by the U.S. Census Bureau. In fact, except for reading, none of the activities measured by the U.S. Census Bureau are even vaguely related to genealogical research. So, as a society we do not value the type of activities involved in doing family research, especially in our "spare time."
Let's examine a few of the activities involved in doing genealogy. First, you need to have a desire to discover your ancestors. That may seem to go without saying, but the real question is how many younger people are really interested in their family? Through a variety of circumstances, many of our current researchers acquired their interest in family research at an early age, but most of us started much later in life. In the course of traveling around to do presentations, I do meet younger people who are involved in genealogy all the time, but they are usually employees of various related companies. There is a decided social association between old age and genealogy. The young determined and dedicated genealogical researcher is a rarity.
Pursuing research about your ancestors involves some fairly intensive use of computers and several other skills that are only acquired through usage. Many older people believe that all young people are "really good at computers." This is simply not true. Many young people lack basic reading and motor skills to be "good at computers." The impression that they know something comes from their ability to play computer games or use remote control devices. I am not convinced that an ability to play computer games is a valuable component for doing serious genealogical research. Many of our youth today also lack even the basic skills of reading, writing and simple math that are required. I have taught many youth groups about genealogy and find that they, especially the young men, lack the ability to log into a computer and follow simple instructions. More recently, I have heard comments from youth and young adults that they do not know how to read cursive handwriting at all.
If the youth of today do not possess this simple, needed skills, how are they going to learn the remaining more difficult skills needed for research? I could quote a number of studies showing the dismal state of our education system, but I will refrain from doing so. It is enough to realize that teaching young people about genealogy is not the only thing they may need to learn to do something productive.
In addition, I find that most of the older young adults, say 20 to 35 years of age, are simply entirely uninterested in anything that seems like work outside of their own job, if they have one. They are also especially uninterested in their family. There are always exceptions, but sitting in front of computer doing online genealogical research or going to a genealogical library are not high on the free-time activities list of nearly all young adults.
Is there an answer? Is the possibility of expanding the user base of genealogy so dismal? Well, yes and no. Genealogy is not an attractive leisure activity. To participate in genealogical research, you have to have a significant inner motivation. 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.
It is only when the youth start seriously considering their relationship to the greater human family and particularly to their own relatives that the desire to discover the details of this relationship can begin to grow and prosper. Meanwhile, we need to recognize that many youth do not acquire and have not acquired the basic skills that would allow them to pursue genealogical research. You cannot plumb a dry well.
This is a topic that bears scrutiny and discussion by the greater genealogical community. Not just platitudes or slogans, but real, workable ideas about involving more age groups in genealogical activity and expanding that activity beyond copying a family tree online and posting it to the same or another online website.