16 October 2013

The Genealogy Generation Gap – Reality or Fiction? by guest blogger Thomas MacEntee

Lately there have been several discussions about a generation gap in the genealogy community. These discussion have been taking place in the online world via blogs, Twitter, and Facebook postings, as well as in-person at genealogy events and society meetings.

Is there really a gap in our community along the lines of age? Or could it be that there are simply differences in how each age group approaches genealogical research and which tools are used for research as well as communication with each other?

Why A Discussion Is Necessary

Before addressing the issues, some believe that the minute you make an attempt at a meaningful discussion on how the genealogy community might possibly be segmented or fragmented, you are being negative and only furthering such division. Nonsense.

First, let’s work from the premise that any discussion about the genealogy community is healthy and one of the best ways to actually find commonality with each other. The inability to discuss issues, and even worse, the desire to not hold such discussions or to suppress them, is good indicator of dysfunction. It happens in families as well as in social groups and organizations.

Second, simply stating that you see a gap between older and younger genealogists does not exacerbate such a division. The focus should be on finding solutions to any separations, if they exist, and to exchanging information over the gap. Doing so not only allows us to understand each other, but lets us work towards doing “epic stuff” in the world of genealogy.

What I’m Seeing Online and In-Person

Many of my own observations about the genealogy community come from two environments: the online community which tends to be dominated by a younger demographic as well as in-person attendance at genealogy conferences and workshops where the older demographic seems to be the majority. We desperately need to maintain discussions in both places – online and in-person – in order to include all interested parties and issues.

When I am a speaker at events, I often engage the audience in discussions about how they use specific research tools and how they approach the research process. I ask questions like “How many of you are on Facebook?” I see perhaps 70% of the room raising their hands. But if I ask “How many of you are using Facebook for your genealogy research?” there are 10% or less responding in the affirmative.
For the most part, when asking older genealogists how they use technology, there is marked a difference compared to when the same question is asked of younger genealogists.

Younger vs. Older or A Tech Gap?

It is a fact that “digital natives” – those that have grown up in a world that always had Internet access and computers – are easily embracing technology and using it in their everyday lives. This includes finding their ancestors and performing genealogy research.

For those of us born before 1985, we had to learn to either work within this brave new world and embrace technology or risk being left out and left behind. A recent article Grandparents get tech savvy to keep in touch at CNN illustrates how the older generation has been forced to learn technology, if only to stay in touch with their children and grandchildren.

The same is becoming true in the genealogy world. Entire conversations and discoveries are being discussed each and every day on Facebook, Twitter and other platforms. In addition, family historians are discovering tools such as Evernote and Scrivener to track their research and write up their results. Anyone in the genealogy field not monitoring these conversations and developments, not only risks being left behind, but also being cut off from access to new research tools and resources. What is a gap can quickly become a chasm with a rapidly increasing distance between the digital “haves” and “have nots.”

Curiosity Didn’t Kill The Cat; It Made Kitty More Knowledgeable

In addition, there is a striking difference in the way in which older and younger users of the Internet and technology operate. It involves curiosity and how to act upon it.

There are times when I attend a genealogy or technology lecture and the presenter makes a comment that not only is “spot on,” but that idea becomes a mantra that I try to embrace and share with others.  In December 2011, Crista Cowan of Ancestry.com put forth this concept which I now use when discussing age groups in genealogy:

Crista asked a mostly older crowd during a lecture at the Salt Lake Christmas Tour, this question: “Do you know the difference between my generation (under age 40) and your generation when it comes to using websites? Your generation won't click on anything until you know exactly what it is going to do. My generation will click on anything just to see what happens.”

The lack of curiosity and the willingness to act perhaps comes from a fear of the “bad side” of the Internet: viruses, malware, spammers. One way to overcome this fear is education as to what to look for when it comes to good vs. bad on the Internet. The fear of “breaking” something should not deter anyone from investigating new tools and new methods of accessing genealogy resources.

Capitalizing On Our Shared Commonality

Whether or not you believe there are any gaps or differences between communities, you should agree that working together across all age groups only strengthens the genealogy community and industry.

So what does it take? In closing, here are some ideas and approaches I’d like to suggest. And I’d love to see others – bloggers, individuals, society leaders and members of the community – discuss these and also add their own!

·       Define your weak spot and work to strengthen it. For individuals this means taking a webinar on a new technology like Google Maps for genealogy. For societies this means inviting a younger genealogist to give a basic overview of new technology.
·       Address the real issues: technology. Avoid using statements such as “You’re too young for genealogy,” or “You’re too old for technology,” which only serve to heighten separation. There are 9 year old genealogists and 90 year old genealogy bloggers. Focus on the actual issues such as access to technology education and the inability to attract younger people to genealogy society membership and participation.
·       Go for “up and down” sharing. This means younger genealogists share how they use new apps and websites and older genealogists share proven methodologies and techniques for good research. Everyone benefits.

© 2013, copyright Thomas MacEntee

Bio: Thomas MacEntee is a genealogy professional specializing in the use of technology and social media to improve genealogical research and as a means of interacting with others in the family history community. For more information visit http://hidefgen.com.



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