Why I picked it up: Demographics is destiny, right? Well, not necessarily. But understanding how the population is shifting is rather important to long-term planning in museums. Additionally, this book is grounded in research by the Pew Research Center, one of my most trusted sources on major societal shifts in America.
What you need to know: Our population is aging rapidly, and as more people live longer, shifts in resources that already disproportionately help seniors (possibly at the expense of children) will only be exacerbated. If we want our society to thrive long-term, we need to think long and hard about this resource allocation. Additionally, Americans are sorting themselves in ways that align with political persuasion.
Implications for museums:
Read or skip? Skip. If you really need hard, national data to back a project you are working on go straight to the Pew Research Center's excellent website or the ultimate source, the US Census Bureau (though they field different, yet complementary, research).
Running synopsis (for those who want the real meat):
Chapter 1 - Political Tribes
Overall thesis that Americans are "sorting themselves - by ideology, age, race, ethnicity, wealth, gender, education, religion, immigrant status, neighborhood - into silos that align with their [political] party affiliation" (p. 2). Through Pew Research Center's questions, they can place respondents on a liberal-to-conservative continuum and then look for differences in societal perceptions, etc. States that conservatives value "teaching children religious values and obedience, while liberals are more inclined to stress tolerance, empathy, creativity, and curiosity." On some of these factors, the difference between "consistent liberals" and "consistent conservatives" is enormous. But individuals of all political persuasions tend to value responsibility, independence, hard work, and good manners (p. 9). Concludes that conservatives are slightly more siloed than liberals, and that people seek out places to live that generally align with their political ideology.
My response: Interesting. Are there people who actively choose to not silo themselves? Who are they? And do they actually take action, or are they really just as siloed as everyone else? Is anyone willing to admit that the silos are OK? (Not that they are, just curious who might think they are good.)
With the huge differences in opinion on some of the values they tested, does that affect museum visitation? Are there differences in perceptions of museums, and visitation rates, based on political persuasion? If yes, does it matter? If not, how interesting. And should we find out? I have mixed feelings about fielding this work because it could be incredibly useful, but it could also be incendiary given the polarity of our political climate.
Chapter 2 - Demographic Destinies
Three facts jumped out at me from this chapter.
My response: I have nothing to say on the teenagers thing except I am shocked. That is just stunning.
As the US population ages, how will we deal with the significant shifts in resources? The population of seniors will likely exceed that of children in just over 20 years. Will museums begin to have specialists in senior learning who work alongside school program educators? And how can museums help promote healthy aging, especially cognitively?
Finally, what can museums (and other informal learning organizations) do to help children from lower SES households achieve more? I bet a lot.
Chapter 5 - Battle of the Ages?
As our population ages, and entitlement programs have changed, we have become a country that supports seniors, but possibly at the expense of children. Programs like Social Security and Medicare have done much to provide a stable quality-of-life baseline for seniors (and seniors were the cohort least affected by the Great Recession), but has that been at the expense of children? Currently, "the federal government now spends about $6 per capita on programs for seniors for every $1 it spends per capita on programs for children" (p. 79) and young adults with children are the poorest age cohort in America.
My response: Given that children do outnumber seniors by quite a bit now (23% of population vs. 15%, though this is changing quickly), the disparity is rather significant. Even taking into account that senior healthcare costs are more than children's educational costs. What will this mean, long-term, for children? For society? (Also, see my comments from chapter 2; this book was a bit repetitive!)
Chapter 9 - Whither Marriage?
Discussed in fair detail decreasing marriage rates, especially among those with less education, with marriage now perceived as a capstone, not as part of a one's path to adult stability. That is, one is not "marriageable" until one has economic prospects. Thus, those with more education are marrying at higher rates than those with less education. And since marriage in and of itself tends to support greater economic stability and prosperity, it is a bit like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Meanwhile, single motherhood has increased as marriage rates decrease.
Shifts in parenting philosophies are also discussed. Generation X parents have gained a reputation for being engaged parents who are a bit prone to helicopter behavior. Yet they may be outpaced by Millennials: 52% of Millennials say being a good parent is "one of the most important things in life" compared with only 42% of Generation Xers when they were the same age (p. 146).
Finally, a warning sign for economic and social vulnerability among Baby Boomers as they age: one in three are single (p. 152).
My response: If leading indicators are that Millennials are going to be even more engaged parents, what does that mean for museums that primarily serve children and their caregivers? Can children's museums give us a preview?
Chapter 10 - Nones on the Rise
Generally, a discussion of how the US population is gradually growing less religious, with younger adults in particular less likely to have any religious affiliation. But two things jumped out from this chapter:
My response: So let's pick these two things apart.
First, over-reporting. In a survey, people often like to present a "face" that is more positive than reality. It isn't necessarily intentional, but trying to present well, even to anonymous survey analysts. Thus, this finding that people over-report going to church. My hunch? People over-report their museum visitation too. Actual results should thus always be either taken with a grain of salt or adjusted to compensate for this (and that adjustment should be duly noted).
Second, the fallacy that as people grow older they will "return" or "grow into" something. Cultural organizations that primarily serve older audiences may count on this too much, assuming (for example) that the Boomers will flock to their offerings once they retire. Well, some Boomers are 70 now and have these organizations begun to see audience growth? Most have not. If the groundwork isn't laid early and often, why should those audiences miraculously appear?
Chapter 13 - Empty Cradle, Gray World
The world's population is aging, and while Japan may be at one extreme, and the US on that pathway, this is a worldwide issue. According to UN estimates, the worldwide population of children under 15 will only grow by 10% by midcentury … but the global population of seniors (65+) will nearly triple (p. 211). What kind of resource allocation will be necessary with that shift? And have elected officials, here and abroad, put off the "day of reckoning" that this generational inequity has created, with programs for the young being neglected in order to continue the current social safety net for ever-more seniors?
My response: Fascinating to see the global numbers. But does this have to be an either/or? How can we make it a both/and? If it is an either/or, the ramifications for neglecting the young may be devastating.
My final response: The book was rather heavy overall on the generational shifts, especially aging and discussions of resource allocation. Makes it a fascinating read, with lots of numbers to back up the case … but it also was a challenging read because it was repetitive and unwieldy. Not for the faint-of-data-heart.
Taylor, Paul. The Next America: Boomers, Millennials, and the Looming Generational Showdown. New York: Public Affairs, 2015.
Have a suggestion for my reading list? Email it to me at susie (at) wilkeningconsulting (dot) com.