Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Genealogy Age Gap -- How do we expand to include the youth?

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.


  1. My ideas .... first quit calling it genealogy, it sounds too much like school. My grandsons were never interested until I dumped genealogy for family history. Second, focus on technology and all that it has to offer. When we moved our tree to and began utilizing their social network applications, I saw our participation increase dramatically and it has stayed high. Third, communicate, communicate, communicate about how fun family history is. I send a weekly Update to all our family members on our site (about 240) and get responses from someone every week. Finally, skip the fine points until and unless you find a true soul mate in the work. Instead focus on stories, games, photographs, etc.

    Just my 2 cents plain.

  2. The biggest reason I have found that young people don't do genealogy is that their worldview doesn't contain a reason why they should be interested in where they came from. They are to busy looking at their future to be looking at their family past. Combine that with our society's emphasis on high-tech new-fangled everything, and total disregard for history and you have the majority of why most genealogists are old. Only after most of a lifetime of experience do we understand why the past is important. I've always been the odd man out, having started genealogy in my 20's.

    You raise good questions, unfortunately I don't have answers. Our culture would have to change significantly by emphasizing history before this would change. And I don't see that happening anytime soon.

  3. My daughter was not interested until I discovered she had Revolutionary War Ancestors. Now she thinks it is really great.

    1. I find this too, Claudia. I think it is in part relevancy and in part, something to which they can relate.

  4. As a 27 year old typing this response on a smart phone, I'd have to say for me it's about discovering or connecting something nobody's connected before. To hunt for the information rather than be given the information. I've considered creating a family history scavenger hunt for my nieces and nephews so it's more of a game or puzzle rather than research work. Thoughts?

  5. I'm 26 and used to research genealogy. But I haven't for a while, and won't be starting it up again until Family Tree has the kinks worked out.

    Why wait for Family Tree? Right now the genealogy I collected is a mass of paper. Most of it was second-hand long before it was given to me, and is unsourced. From that starting point, I have zero interest in creating yet another personal family tree. On the other hand, a community family tree makes sense to me -- I can contribute as my career permits, and don't have to worry it will be tossed in the trash (or worse, burden someone else) when I die. (Also, as a younger person, I have a deep appreciation for living projects like wikipedia -- and like the project Family Tree hopes to become.)

    But I won't contribute to Family Tree until I'm confident it will survive. If I count nFS and Family Tree as part of the same software project -- which I do, since they come from the same developer base -- the project has been under development, as far as I can tell, since 2001. 12 years without a fully functional system is an embarrassment. (And I don't buy the "software is hard" argument. Family Tree is only revolutionary by genealogical standards -- wikis have been around since 1995, and most fledgling software projects don't have the financial backing of the FamilySearch organization.) So, Family Tree will need some time to win back my respect.

    I don't claim to be representative, but that's my young-person's view.

  6. I have to say, I think a lot of it with people my age (27 also) is not having the time, particularly for the early 'learning to do something new' stage. I know loads of people with a passing interest, who ask me questions and tell me what they know about their families already and so on. Whenever I mention to my friends or new people I meet that I'm into family history, most of them are interested and ask me about it, usually starting with one of two qeustions. 1. How do you find the time? - to which point I usually say, well, that's what I'm doing while you're at the gym (or playing football, at the cinema, or whatever). And 2. How did you know where to start? It's a much harder question to answer, but I always think that I wouldn't have a clue where to start in the gym, but you just figure it out, if you really want to.

  7. I have been very casually doing this for a couple of years now and I've gone to some classes and at now 41 I am definitely on the young end of the attendee's. What got me started was after I located my husband's grandfather who he'd lost touch with for probably 20 years after his father died (post parental divorce). He was such an interesting man but already 93 and forgetting things about his family- and there was no one left really from that family.
    I think if you can find one really interesting relative to snag younger people in they will be interested in finding out about others.
    I wish I'd known to do it when my great grandmother was still alive- that was only 10 years ago!

  8. This is an issue that most hobbies and service organizations must deal with. As has been pointed out, the situation has been this way for years.

    The crux of the problem is just as one or two previous commenters have said: those in the 20-40 age group, especially, are at the least "convenient" time to get involved in hobbies and other activities. They're just starting out in life, so their funds are pretty much committed to daily living (and, hopefully, retirement savings), and as they raise their families their priorities are elsewhere. Genealogy, model railroading, Lions Club, Optimist International -- the same goes for all of them.

    The solution, or part of it, is two-fold: get them interested in an early age, and then accept the fact that they won't be active until many years later. I've seen this many times at model railroad shows: the kids love it, the parents don't want to get involved, but years later when the kids are grown and looking for something to do they'll remember the trains.

    We can do the same with genealogy. Get to the kids when they're in elementary school and talk about "the olden days." The conversation won't last long due to their short attention spans, but make it interesting for them. Do your public schools have a family history unit (they do here, in 3rd grade)? Volunteer to help the class do extremely basic research on their families (note: it's critical to be sensitive to those who might not have any idea who one or both parents are, so not everyone may be cut out for this particular project). I haven't looked it up so can't be sure, but I believe Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, or both have a genealogy/family history merit badge -- volunteer to be a counselor!

    There are many tacks we can take. The trick is to realize that results won't be immediate.

    (For what it's worth, I was introduced to genealogy in the 1960s by a Woody Woodpecker comic book, and my interest was nourished by my grandmother, who was working on her own family history.)

    Dave L

  9. Once I was doing research at a genealogy library when an elementary school class came in to "tour" the library. The librarian talked to them about genealogy, went over basic things like how to interview a grandparent, and even gave them copies of questions to ask and a simple blank family tree that they could fill out. This could be a good way to spark some interest.

    I'm 27, and I've been doing genealogy steadily for five years.

    How I got started: I was sitting in my dorm room, bored on a weeknight, so I started browsing around the list of journals/databases that my university subscribes to. I came across, went to the site, did a quick search for my grandfather, and immediately found him in the 1930 census. I was fascinated. That night I stayed up til 4 AM looking through the censuses. If I hadn't got an immediate "hit" on that first search, though, I might have never looked further.

    As my research became more involved, I learned that my university library had an outstanding genealogy room, plus all of my state's extant newspapers on microfilm. For the first few weeks, nearly everything I wanted was within 5 minutes of my dorm, and the library was open daily until 2 AM. This helped tremendously in maintaining my interest.

    After I left college, research became more challenging, of course, and I had to go out of my way more often and spend my own money, but by then, I was hooked.

    One downside: You seldom meet other young people. I've spent countless hours in genealogy libraries and archives in various states, but throughout this whole time, I've literally only seen two cute girls in a genealogy library, and neither was actually there for genealogy. (One just stumbled upon the library and wandered in, and the other was doing research for a course assignment. ... Yes, I struck up conversations with both of them.)

  10. I think there is a correlation between youth being uninterested in history and not being interested in family history. I remember that history was a terribly boring subject in school, approached from a "read and take notes" perspective. I have always loved history but even I was bored in those classes. I think that if the education system can make history more exciting (hands on, field trips, multi-media) then by the transitive property kids will find their own history interesting.

    Of course, it's also important to share stories of the "olden days" as another commenter wrote. Yes, maybe you focus on the "exciting" ancestors at first. We also try to take our kids to places their ancestors did things, such as battle fields.

    It's a great topic for discussion.

  11. Wow, as a 30-something person who DOES do genealogy and who KNOWS many young people who are interested, I have to admit that your post is insulting on a few fronts. "We are especially uninterested in our family." What?! First of all, I am a stay-at-home-mom and wife - my family is EVERYTHING to me. I started doing genealogy for my kids' sakes, but I soon realized that my entire extended family in benefiting from my work. Second, we are not educated enough to do genealogy research? I have a Master's Degree and just about every young person I know, even my 22 yr old sister, has the computer and research knowledge to begin basic genealogy research. You don't need to like history to embrace genealogy - you need to show people how it tells life stories. Everyone loves a good story, esp. when it's about a family member. Do you remember what it was like in your 20s and 30s? Here's how mine went: College, grad school, plan wedding, work, work, surgery on leg, move, have baby, more surgery, have another baby, move again. Not a whole lot of time for genealogy research. Oh, and let's not forget that genealogy isn't not cheap - right now, saving for my kids' college funds and our retirement funds is sort of a bigger priority for me and my husband and it will be for awhile. I just started a genealogy blog last year and I can't tell you how many of my contemporaries comment and say "Wow that's so cool, I wish I could find that stuff out about my family." We ARE interested. My suggestion to YOU and other "older" people who seem to hold unreasonable and completely untrue stereotypes about young people is to stop insulting us and instead use your enthusiasm for and knowledge of genealogy to welcome us into the fold.

    1. Hello Anonymous,
      Perhaps you also realize what a tiny group of people you represent in today's world. In 2012, less than 8% of the U.S. population had earned a Master's Degree and only 3% of the population a Doctorate or professional degree. If you feel that these statistics are "insulting" then perhaps you missed the point of my post. See Educational Attainment

      Perhaps you also realize that only about 55% of the people your age are married. I could go on, but rather than be insulted, perhaps you should be glad you have what you have and recognize that few other people share your advantages.

    2. Normally your blog posts are spot on, James, but this post is a major FAIL.

      We don't bridge the generation gap by shooting down those on the other side.

      And at the rate you are going, there will be no one left on that other side to talk with, so how will the family stories be handed down?

      Sad to read all of this, and the FB comments.

    3. Amen, Anonymous! Amen! I can relate to your story. I'm getting my teaching credential and planning my wedding and getting my career in order... all of that means that I can't spend hours and hours researching. But it doesn't mean I don't love to research. I do, I just don't have a lot of time to devote to it.

    4. I may be getting old, but I LOVE the younger generations, and wish to keep up with technology and things to share more of my family history with them as they choose. Each will come to appreciate, in their own time, the rich heritage that is ours. It's my joy to tell the silly, wonky, and serious family tales and compile the genealogy as accurately as I can so the stories of our ancestors won't be lost. JUST SAYING...

    5. This blog post basically shows a certain mentality which has pushed young people away from family history and a general misunderstanding of how one should go about sharing family history with young people. We need to overcome these misconceptions if we want to see a large amount of young people become engaged in this awesome hobby/profession.

  12. As a professional genealogist in my mid-30s who became interested in genealogy in my early-20s I may not be typical, but I certainly don't feel unique. I know plenty of other young genealogists. No, you may not meet many at your local genealogy society, but you will find lots of us blogging about family history or discussing it on Twitter and Facebook.

    As has been mentioned, there are practical reasons why younger people may not actively research their family history: lack of time, lack of money and the fact that many archives are only open Mon-Fri during the day when most younger people are working. However, the fact that so many records are now available online means that many younger (i.e. below retirement age) people have been able to get started on researching their families who would have previously found it very difficult.

    If there is a lack of younger people actively into genealogy, I'm not sure it's really a matter of concern. All of us currently researching have come to genealogy in our own way - often the birth of a child or the death of an elderly relative - and I think it's fairly safe to assume that many younger people who aren't particularly interested in their family history now will become so in the future.

  13. I'm 25 and have been heavily interested in genealogy for the past 13 years (and have actually heard you speak at a Family History Expo). When I was a little girl I absolutely loved anything having to do with puzzles and mysteries, and I am still that way. Growing up I spent a great deal of time with my great-grandmother and also never knew one of my grandfathers. That said, I never asked my great-grandmother, in the decade that I knew her, anything about her family. It was after she died that I became interested in this person who had lived for 100 years and was so well loved by everyone in her community and family. With my absent grandfather, genealogy was the only way I could create a relationship with him, simple as that.

    But, for all this it really is my interest in puzzles and mysteries that has propelled and sustained my interested in genealogy beyond my great-grandmother and grandfather. And, I'll be totally honest here, unlike a lot of genealogists (I believe) I'm not very sentimental about the vast majority of my ancestors. I respect them and am interested in their lives, but once the puzzle is solved (whether it is who their parents were or what crops they grew on their farm), I'm ready to notate it, file it, and move on to a new challenge. I do feel sad or happy for them when I learn something that likely would have also made them feel sad or happy; but these feeling are in the moment only, I do not sit and ruminate over their lives or wish I knew them or lived in their times.

    In short, I'm not very sentimental about most of my ancestors and neither are too many people in my age group. When genealogy veers in that direction, as it tends to do (especially in ads) I loose interest in what is being shilled. I think the sentimentality appeals to a lot of older genealogists, because sentimentality (and recognizing the value of it) comes with age and life events (for instance, I'm MUCH more sentimental about my childhood and family ever since my father's passing a few months ago). Though I agree with you on the importance of valuing our relationships with our families, past and present, as well as the human race in general - I do not think this will ever compel bus loads of kids into the FHCs, or

    If you want to hook younger people, present genealogy as if it were a jigsaw puzzle and emphasize the "thrill of the hunt," don't make it about what great-great-grandma must have felt the first time she milked a cow. I also think history would be more interesting to more people if it followed this approach, but that is beside the point.

    BUT, you also have to think about the quality of the person you want to attract. Sorry if this sounds snobby, but most people my age would dumb down genealogy (i.e., not bother with citing sources, record keeping, preserving their finds, venturing outside of the internet for information, etc.). I agree wholeheartedly with your points about necessary skills and the education level of most people under 35 and I do not think these people, by and large, would be of much good to genealogy. Only when you find a way to make details interesting and important to the average person, regardless of age, will you begin to attract future FASG candidates in large numbers.

    Hook the youth with a mystery, then discover a way to make the details just as compelling. When you figure out that equation, let us all know.

    Or, you could just wait for people to get older, when they have lost more links to their past and are looking for a way to get back. I think that is the most powerful personal motivation of all (both for genealogy research and acquiring the skills to do it) - and not too many people under 35 have it. - L

    1. I'm late here, but I really liked your response.
      As a 37 year old family historian, a qualified librarian and a software developer (weird mix, I know), I can't disagree with what your or James have written.
      I would love to one day be involved in trying to change this trend.

  14. Y'all can quit worryin' about trying to reach young people. There are plenty of young researchers out there, myself included. You won't be the ones to reach them. Other young genealogists are the ones who are going to get more people involved and interested in genealogy.

    I started doing genealogy when I was 16. I'm 23 today, and I wouldn't trade what I've learned about my family for anything else in the world. It's a perspective I treasure. I travel extensively to deepen my love and understanding of my ancestors. I am just as qualified and savvy as any old timer, and I've unraveled my share of mysteries to prove it.

    If any young genealogists happen to stumble upon this post and are looking to connect with other young genealogists, I've recently started a community on Google+ with a friend of mine called Young and Savvy Genealogists. Anyone under 30 who loves genealogy is welcome to join. Come and check us out. Also check out our blog at

    1. Great reply! I totally agree that the young genealogists will recruit more young genealogists. I know I'm not very inspired by all the older genealogists wringing their hands about how kids these days don't care about family. *huge eye roll*

      I, too, started when I was 16, when my grade 11 history class assigned us a family tree going back to our great grandparents. I just kept going! I'm now 25 and it's become an obsession.

      I just joined your Google+ community; thanks for sharing!