There is a persistent genealogical myth that equates youth with genealogical interest and competency simply because of familiarity with technology. Becoming a competent genealogist involves much more than simply knowing how to turn on a computer and operate a mouse. This myth seems to arise in conjunction with another myth that old people per se, do not know how to use computers.
My personal experience belies both of these views. I have been working with people of all ages and I find that computer competency and incompetency can be found at any age. I have written on this subject several times, but I keep hearing prominent speakers conclude that the salvation of genealogy lies with the youth simply because they are more acquainted with technology than the old folks who are essentially beyond help and even beyond consideration.
There are probably quite few reasons why older people become interested in genealogy at a much higher rate than other age groups. There are, of course, a lot of genealogy related activities, such as Indexing, posting photos, gathering stories, etc., that young people will find challenging and interesting. Whether we consider genealogy an academic subject, an avocation, or merely a hobby, discovering one's ancestors involves a complex mixture of a variety of skills. Most of these skills take a considerable time to acquire and are not usually present in teenagers. These skills include researching, analysis, interviewing and many more.
In looking back over my own experience in becoming involved in genealogy, I can see several crucial stages in my learning. I have mentioned in previous posts that I had almost no contact with anyone else interested in my family's history or even in genealogy in general for many, many years. Until I took the U.S. Research courses from Brigham Young University over a five year period, I was really not particularly aware of a lot of issues, even though I was familiar with many of the basic reference books and materials. So, my own development in genealogy went through stages.
The first stage was clearly the survey stage. I spent years determining what had and had not been done in my family. Of course, I did not have a convenient online family tree to consult. My survey consisted on weeks on end spent in the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah searching through the Patron File of submitted Family Group Records. I quickly discovered two important facts; there was a great deal of misinformation and confusion in the records and many of the pedigrees were simply false.
After more than 15 years of gathering records and entering a summary of those records into various primitive computer programs, I realized that I knew very little about what I was doing. This is when I determined to take the BYU courses. That was an intense experience. Some of those courses were more difficult than any I had in graduate school or in law school. During this time, you might be interested to know, I was helping to raise my seven lovely children and practicing law full time and involved in church activities.
I continued to acquire and read a huge number of books on genealogy and finally, began attending conferences.
Now, after I have gone through all of that and still realize how little I really know and how much more there is to know, you just might begin to understand why I think it is a little bit presumptuous to think that a teenager will have either the time or motivation to learn how to do genealogy. I certainly acknowledge that there is a place and a time for them to begin, but to assume that anyone, old or young, can acquire a working knowledge of genealogy by simply sitting down at a computer and watching a couple of motivational videos is sheer nonsense.
Can they help? Yes. Can they contribute? Yes. Can they learn how to begin and start into the process? Yes, of course. Now, there are always exceptions. I never learned how to play the piano, except to pick out a tune. Some of my grandchildren have learned to play the piano at a competition level. But this involves taking lessons and practicing nearly every day, day after day, for years. Why do we think that anyone, young or old, can acquire the complex skills necessary to "do genealogy" without spending the same type of effort and time? I can't help but believe that all those who think there is some kind of short cut to genealogical competency have never done any research themselves. Over and over again, I have had patrons at the Mesa FamilySearch Library say they had no idea how complicated genealogy was or could be.
If we are serious about involving the "youth" in genealogy, let's get serious about providing them with the opportunity to do more than watch a few motivational videos. How about serious classes and training? How about a consistent curriculum for training. I have been teaching classes now for more than six years at the Mesa FamilySearch Library and except for "youth groups," I have had almost no one come to my classes who could be described as a youth. We need to think seriously about the transition from picking names out of online family trees and doing serious genealogical research.
Meanwhile, let's stop pretending that doing genealogy is like a trip to an amusement park.