I just read a post entitled “The Genealogy Age Gap – How do we expand to include youth?” written by James Tanner at Genealogy’s Star. The premise of the article intrigued me because I started my genealogical research at a relatively young age (20ish). I didn’t really get very serious until the past few years, so I was interested to see what others were saying about how to get younger generations truly interested in doing family history research. Unfortunately, Mr. Tanner’s article painted an amazingly bleak picture and seemed to place the problem squarely at the feet of younger generations and not actually offer much in the way of constructive suggestions for getting younger people involved in genealogical research.
Since I fall just outside of what Mr. Tanner calls “older young adults” (his age range for that ends at 35, and I am 41 now), and I have two teenage daughters who have shown a genealogy spark, I thought I would offer a counter argument from a “youngster’s” perspective.
Mr. Tanner’s conclusion was:
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.
I think that this simply short sells our youth and young adults. I have worked with hundreds of local youth through various volunteer organizations including Junior Achievement and a local organization called Chain Reaction, and I have found that the vast majority of them are quite intelligent, very computer literate (beyond simply playing games and working a remote as Mr. Tanner says), and given the chance, most have the patience and research skills that would help them to excel in genealogical research. Instead of tearing down our youth and young adults, let’s look at ideas for how to ignite that spark to take an interest in family history.
First and foremost, let’s look at terminology. I know that the formal name for the study of families and their lineage is “genealogy,” but if you were to ask a young adult or someone in their teens if they were interested in genealogy, most would give you a blank stare and tell you they weren’t. However, if you were to ask that same person if they are interested in finding out who their great grandparents were and finding out where their family really came from, I have the feeling that the response would be much more positive. I have heard a number of youth and young adults discuss the TV show “Who Do You Think You Are” in very positive terms. The show sells genealogy in terms that younger people will relate to.
The second major factor in getting the younger generations involved in genealogy is the use of technology. As I said earlier, I started my research almost two decades ago. When I started my research, almost the only research that could be done on the computer was “World Family Trees” that could be accessed only through FamilyTree Maker, and some very limited records. Beyond that, technology was barely used in genealogy. It has only been in the past ten years or so that utilizing technology for family history research has started to become truly viable. Whether we like it or not, our youth are technology oriented. If we tell them that the only way to do family history research is to go to courthouses, I can pretty much guarantee that they will turn up their noses. However, if we show them how they can use technology to get started (Ancestry.com has done a wonderful job of doing this!), we will bring them into the genealogical past time. As anyone who has done this for very long knows, once you get started and find the interest, going to a courthouse to do research is the equivalent of going on a field trip in school – you can’t wait to go again and again!
The final factor in getting younger generations interested in doing family history research is more problematic. Mr. Tanner is correct in saying that younger generations need to have a connection to their families and their family history in order to succeed at pursuing family history research. The problem is that our culture has changed so much that we, as parents and grandparents, have no frame of reference to understand the incredible tidal wave of stimuli that our younger generations deal with on a daily basis. Young people are bombarded by every stimulus imaginable that competes for their attention, and inevitably, connection to their family suffers as a result. In many, many cases, parents that grew up in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s have learned to let TV, homework, and electronic stimulation take their child away from the family. We need to learn how to relate to teens and young adults in ways that are on their terms and spark that interest in family. We cannot just say that youth have to start “seriously considering their relationship to the greater human family” if we are not helping them to understand and appreciate that relationship.
I don’t believe that the age gap in genealogy is insurmountable or even that difficult to overcome. But I do think that it will take all of us examining how we relate to younger generations and how we portray and promote family history research. Let’s continue to improve the use of technology; increase the number of records available electronically, and let’s take a moment to stop and relate to the younger generation and find that story in your family’s past that will intrigue someone younger.