Saturday, November 30, 2019

Why Aren't More Young People Interested in Genealogy?

So far, most of my blog posts have addressed standards I believe are necessary for serious genealogical research. I've tried to approach these topics in my own way, and argue passionately that those starting out in the hobby need to develop a certain mindset if they are to produce work that is of lasting value. But with the present post I am taking a break from all of that. Instead, this time I'll offer my thoughts on a question that occasionally gets asked in the genealogical community: why aren't more young people interested in the pursuit? Some of my answers will overlap with those frequently given, while others may be more peculiar to my perspective.

1. Young People Have More Pressing Concerns 
Like many authors of fiction, J.K. Rowling likes to speak through her characters. In the Harry Potter books, one of the things she says through Professor Dumbledore is that the old are often guilty of forgetting what it is to be young. This bit of wisdom could be stated for all of my points here, but it's especially applicable to this one. Was genealogy a priority when you were young? Moreover, there are pressures and anxieties that young people are forced to navigate now that people of older generations may never have experienced (or may not have experienced to such sharp degrees). Young people today who might otherwise be interested in genealogy are attaining ever more expensive college educations, are chasing well-paying jobs that are fewer and farther between, and are buying homes and starting families. In many cases, they're doing the latter with dollars that have never been worth less, prices that have never been higher, and wages that haven't grown enough to meet new costs. Young breadwinners often find it increasingly difficult to support their spouses and children. Navigating the Lean Years is as tough now as it has been for decades. Can we really ask why these things may be more on young people's minds than researching Great Great Gramps or Great Aunt Gretchen?

2. Young People Have Less Time For Genealogy 
Things like college, full-time jobs, and parenting are time-consuming. Ask a busy 20- or 30-something if he or she feels like doing genealogy after a long weekday, or if their idea of a weekend of leisure is hunting down records and creating family trees. Maybe this sounds like fun for some of them, but I think you'll get more takers from other age brackets.

3. Young People May Have Less Money to Spend on Genealogy
I'll be honest: it sticks in my craw a bit when a Baby Boomer lets on that an Ancestry or MyHeritage subscription is "no big deal" in terms of cost. No big deal to whom? To an older person with nearly a lifetime of income growth and savings? I promise that it is certainly a big deal to young people who are trying to avoid too much college debt (compare college costs from 1965 or 1975 to today), trying to keep ahead of bills, and/or trying to save or invest enough money for retirement. 100, 75, even 20 dollars per month is no laughing matter for most young people. And that's before we start talking about trips to distant archives, or paying to have vital certificates and other records delivered in the mail. Each of us has 8 great grandparents. Assuming that we can locate such records for them, these costs start adding up fast...especially when we then proceed to research all of the cousin lines.

4. Older People Are Situated to be More Reflective
People who have "lived a little" are in better spots to start thinking about where they came from. Nothing spurs looking back like traversing a long span of life with all of its vicissitudes. This is often the catalyst for interest in genealogy. Young people simply haven't had much experience here.

5. Young People May Feel Out of Place at Genealogy Societies and Conferences
I've heard it been said that "we just need to invite more young people to society meetings and conferences." You can certainly try. But I question the success rate of inviting young people (especially teens) to spend considerable time with crowds of folks whose average age looks to be about 63. I'm all the more apprehensive if the young person in question adheres to contemporary mores that may invite unwelcome remarks from the less inhibited elders. 

6. Genealogy Can Seem a Lot Like School
Twelve grades, then college, then graduate studies (depending upon the person) is a lot of school. Young people who are involved with, or have recently finished, any of this may not have the appetite for "fun studies" on top of everything else. I myself became keenly interested in genealogy during my doctoral coursework. I now teach at a university for a living. There have been days when I don't have much intellectual energy left for genealogy. 

7. Actually, Plenty of Young People ARE Interested in Genealogy, But...
Somewhat related to No. 6, one's passion for genealogy can speak to a certain predisposition. I'm talking about a love for academic or "mind-based" types of activity. Some people show passion for this sort of thing relatively soon, and I believe it is these individuals who are most likely to demonstrate an early predilection toward genealogy. I gather that people who already love to read, love history, love puzzles, and love, for the lack of a better term, "book smarts," often latch onto genealogy long before others do. Those who aren't drawn to these things may take up genealogy later, when reflection and life experience lead them to the hobby by a somewhat different route. It's dangerous to categorize this sort of thing too sweepingly, but from what I see, the young people passionate about (as opposed to mildly interested in) genealogy tend to be good students and/or work in professions that call for intellect-based skills: academics, IT workers, librarians, engineers, etc. OR, they're people who would be good in such roles. There are always exceptions; some academically-skilled people come to genealogy only later, etc. But I believe that this tendency is common enough to mention here.

There are definite advantages to taking up genealogy as a young person: you have more older relatives around to interview, more time to learn, more chances to pursue elusive records, and you may be an ideal inheritor of photos/artifacts, etc. But I also think that we shouldn't be as worried about this issue as some seem to be. Those of us excited about genealogy know that not everyone will share our passion. Over-zealous evangelism for the hobby can be a big turn-off. Still, the knowledge of our ancestors lives on because new generations take up the task of preserving it. As we spread the joy of our hobby, we should plant seeds carefully...and work to identify those most likely to carry on our endeavors. In this matter, as with so much else related to genealogy, aiming well beats aiming indiscriminately.


  1. I have to agree with you - it's so easy to say "Young people aren't interested" however, I realize many just don't have the time. I've been researching my tree since I was in my 20s, but only got deeply into it a few years ago. Yes, I'm still working F/T, but we don't have children (oh, the irony), so I'm able to devote time in the evenings and on weekends.

    I co-founded a local group and the majority of the member are 20 years older than me, but I've always been comfortable with people of all ages - I can well understand how someone 10 years younger than me might not want to join our group. That said, the chronologically oldest member of our group is one of the youngest octogenarians I've ever met. I love hanging out with her (she comes to me at my library job for help with Ancestry)...

  2. I think also some young people may have to have a solid reason for entering into Genealogy. For example someome who is adopted and wishes to know where they have come from or if they have a child born with an illness or complaint which may be hereditary they may wish to delve into it. Our Family History group had a young author come in to do some research for a book and became hooked on finding her own tree

  3. Each generation has probably said this same thing. I showed interest as a teen and into my 20’s and 30’s by asking questions of my family members. But, only in my early 50’s did I pursue genealogy as a passion (ok, my husband would say obsession). Do I wish I’d have asked more question, or the right questions? Yes. I think if we share family stories with our younger members, in a fun way, we may encourage them to follow our lead later in life. Let’s hope so.