I'll be honest with you. When it comes to young adults (under 40) without children, the findings from my 2017 Annual Survey of Museum-Goers didn't surprise me. I feel like it is stuff we all already know.
It's pretty logical, really. Young adults are less likely to be as connected to museums as families with young children and older adults. This isn't the same thing as saying less likely to visit (in fact, my work with AAM's Museums and America 2017 research indicates they are more likely to visit than older adults). But they are less likely to be members, to receive communications from museums directly … and less likely to respond to surveys of museum-goers. Which means that the ones who do respond? They are pretty big museum fans. There just are not that many of them.
The data bears this out. Young adults without children comprised only 5% of the overall sample. Hardly representative of their share of the total population.
But wow, that 5% is probably the most enthusiastic museum-goer out there. They are:
The most engaged with the content, most likely to think museums are fun, most curious, and most likely to think museums help people in their community, as this young adult shared:
"I think [museums] are a great venue for learning new knowledge, hosting events, and serving as a pillar in community life and culture. Personally, museums have and continue to make me question different aspects of the world around me. For that constant curiosity, I am forever grateful."
Extrinsically motivated as well. Museums provide respite in their busy lives, and places for social connection. Or both, as this young adult shared:
"Life is so hectic and busy these days I feel I do not spend nearly enough time with loved ones and visiting a museum for a day is an awesome experience and memory with my family and friends."
What makes this group so enthusiastic? Well, it seems to come from their childhoods. They are the most likely segment to have been raised in a college-educated household, and we know what that means for household likelihood to visit. This was borne out by their open-ended responses about the value of museums, which speak to both their childhoods and the high value they place on museums today:
"As a child from a low income rural family, visiting museums aided and filled in gaps in my education and provided me with rare opportunities I would not have gotten otherwise. They opened my eyes to a world outside, and a world of possibilities I'd have never found out about."
"Museums have always held an important role in my life. Museums make science and history visual for people of all ages, stimulating interest and increasing understanding of important concepts. I still remember scientific exhibits that engaged me as a child, and as an adult I continue to want to learn about those subjects."
Yet there are challenges with this audience. First, how few responded in the first place. Of course that's an issue. But there is more. Despite being the most intrinsically-motivated segment, and high levels of engagement, they are the least likely to be a member or donor, and the least likely to think museums are charity. Clearly, membership doesn't work for them the way it is currently structured. Can we create a membership option that makes more sense for them? And in a way that opens the door to future giving as well?
And they admit they do not have strong connections to their community. Far lower levels of connection. Despite the fact that they, on average, have more concerns about their community than any other segment. In particular, their top community concern is that peopledon't know their neighbors, followed by a loss of civility/more polarization. NO ONE felt stronger about these community challenges than young adults without children.
Which presents us with a pretty fantastic opportunity, if you think about it. How do we, as museums, help these young adults develop connections with their communities? Their neighbors? The data indicates that connections do tend to happen when individuals become parents. But many are choosing to delay parenthood until their 30s, while others are choosing to never have children at all. What then? Can museums help? How? And by helping young adults connect with their communities more deeply, can we also expand and deepen our connection with young adults? Which brings us to a question about community engagement yielding museum engagement, and vice versa, which I'll come back to in several weeks. Stay tuned.
A note about fielding research. I hold dear the idea that research for the field, about the field, should be shared with the field. But that only works when museums work together to make it possible. Since individual museums are needed to field this work, the survey also benefits participating museums on an individual level by providing benchmark data on visitation rates, motivations, attitudes and preferences, and demographic questions … all of which can then be tracked over time in the future. Participating museums are also allowed to add 1 - 2 custom questions specific to their needs.
Which means if you value this research, want more of it in the coming years, and want to track your own museum's progress over time, please support this work by enrolling your museum in the 2018 Annual Survey of Museum Goers. The fee for 2018 is only $1,000 per museum.
The questions for this survey have been inspired by ongoing conversations within the museum field (who does/does not go to museums, why they do/do not visit, and what that means for communities) and ongoing research in the fields of education and psychology around lifelong learning and intrinsic motivation.