Is There a Perceived Age Demographic in Genealogy?

We all know of serendipity when it comes to genealogy – how things just “fall into place” or how we seem guided by an ancestor in our search for family history.  I also believe something called a “genealogy wavelength” – meaning there are some in the genealogy community who are doing the same type of analyzing and processing of information at the same time.

Carol over at iPentimento and I either made the same observation recently or we are just sending each other telepathic signals across the miles.  We are both wondering if there isn’t a perceived age demographic in the genealogy industry and perhaps even an age bias involved.

The Article Says One Thing . . .

My thoughts formed last night as I was reading the latest issue of Family Tree Magazine (November 2010) and specifically a great article entitled Closing the Generation Gap. In the article, five genealogists ranging from ages 13 to 26 are interviewed and share their thoughts about the genealogy industry and working within that industry as someone way below the age demographic.

But Do The Ads Say Another?

And while I read the article, I notice there were four full-page ads in this issue of Family Tree magazine from a company called firstSTREET (their byline is “for Boomers and Beyond®”). On page 42 is an ad with the headline, “Are you in love with your home, but afraid of your staircase?” Yes, it is for one of those chair lifts you install along the stairwell.

Over on Page 47 is a smiling woman selling another firstSTREET product – this time it is a chair lift for a bathtub.  And finally on page 57, is a “New medical alarm can save you money, . . . and save your life!” again from firstSTREET. And oh, I almost forgot.  On page 59 is an ad for a cell phone with oversized buttons from – guess who? – right, firstSTREET.

I do think that firstSTREET is targeting an older market and is smart to advertise in genealogy magazines like Family Tree Maker.  The fact is that most readers of genealogy magazines are in the Baby Boomer age group.

Are Genealogists That Old?

Or perhaps they just fall down quite a bit.  I know I do – for a variety of reasons – and sometimes out of sheer joy of finding an ancestor! But seriously, what is the age demographic for genealogists?

My observations may seem overly influenced by my social media activity but the fact is I do get out of the house occasionally. In fact, I think I’ve been to nine genealogy events and conferences – all out of town – since June! Here’s what I see:

  • At conferences the demographic is mostly women (70%) and mostly age 50 and above. This includes various national and regional conferences that I have attended over the past year.
  • When certain topics are discussed in presentations – topics such as social media or facebook – the age bar comes down a bit but not as much as you think!  While the age 55 and above group makes up a small percentage of Facebook users, it is due to concerns over privacy that this group attends sessions about Facebook so they can learn how to use the program safely.
  • When social media is involved at a genealogy event, most of the users and proponents are under the age of 55.

So What Is The Age Demographic for Genealogy?

Is it perceived or actual? How is it measured? Many questions come up especially when using personal observations – it depends on your own demographic.  I find that attendees at conferences tend to interact with others in their same age group.  When interaction does cross age groups, often it is to comment on either how young/old the other person is or to comment on how they do their genealogy. By this I mean whether they use social media and online research, or if they are doing all their work at repositories and without the use of a computer.

You’re Only As Old As You Feel

What I’d love to see evolve over the course of the next five years in terms of age demographics and genealogy is this: not so big a divide in the under and over-55 age groups when it comes to technology.

I think that both age groups of genealogists have much to offer each other: the younger set should not shut out older genealogists and write them off as “dinosaurs” or “luddites” who refuse to learn and use technology. The older set should not dismiss younger genealogists as less than serious because they choose to use social media to expand their genealogy research and experience.

So I think there should be a strong focus on the “technology” demographic rather than the “age” demographic in the genealogy industry.

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Disclosure: I am a writer for Family Tree Magazine and receive compensation for my submissions.  Read all my material connections with genealogy vendors here.

©2010, copyright Thomas MacEntee

About the Author

Thomas MacEntee
Genealogy educator and author Thomas MacEntee has been researching his family history for more than 40 years and is the creator of Abundant Genealogy, Genealogy Bargains, DNA Bargains, The Genealogy Do-Over and numerous other web-based genealogy and family history properties.

11 Comments on "Is There a Perceived Age Demographic in Genealogy?"

  1. Good post – reminds me of my first genealogical newletter form teh Pikes Peak Society about two years ago. It was discussing the results of a poll of what age groups were at all interested in their family tree. Most people lean toward the more elderly researchers, but many more tech savvy youth these days are getting to the LDS conferences and I hope they storm the RootsTech Conference next February with all their bright new ideas. We, as researchers, always need more innovation in the legacy preservation and networking departments.

    I was only about 15 when my interest really began, it didn’t peak until my military time, then it skyrocketed when it became my therapy after loosing two parents and two grandparents in under 20 months.

    Another great blog idea would be the financial impact on research – with so many ut of work in the US, how many have resorted to genealogy related employment. It would be awesome to have a job that I love as much as my family research which I currently breathe, eat, and sleep!

  2. Martin

    You are right in terms of having more disposable money (and time) as you get older and at certain time periods of your life. However, I am starting to see a bit of a WDYTYA effect in my demographics study: a little younger and more mothers with children – especially with their first born – are checking out genealogy.

  3. What happens to those of us who have transversed the demographics over the years? I was doing genealogy in the 1970s as a teen. So, I was rare back then, but time has now put me squarely in the majority demographic? Ouch. I think that genealogy used to be largely pursued by people whose parents had just died and they wanted to know more about their families and it was then impossible to ask. And of course, there’s the cost of genealogy. The older you are the more time and money you tend to have (of course that’s not universally true). I’m sure someone has done the marketing analysis.

  4. Thomas,

    In fairness to genealogy conferences, I know there is a lot more that goes into planning conferences than what I mentioned in my comments. For instance, the organizers are trying to get the cheapest conference location rates. When they hit summer I think the prices increase and that’s why they hold them at such off times. So the question is, will having them in the summer be off-set by the mad rush of young people and parents who could now attend? I think they don’t see that tipping point to make it worth changing the dates.


  5. I was 21 when I started doing research. I went to classes and conferences throughout my 20s, when I was single and had no children and no one to spend my money on (ahh, youth).

    In my 30s I married and had children. I was a corporate executive, so I had plenty to spend, but no time to focus on research.

    Now, at 39, I am a stay at home mom. I do some freelance work, but not enough to pay for airfare and hotel and conference registration…and my kids are 3 and 5, and I’m their full-time caregiver, so I can’t leave them anyway. If you looked around for me at a conference, you wouldn’t find me.

    I’ll pop up at those conferences again, in my 40s, when the kids are older. I imagine I’ll fit in better this time around.

    I don’t think my experience is atypical. I think there are people of all ages who are interested in genealogy, but it’s only those with older (or grown) children who have the time and money to be visible in the genealogical community…or at least, that’s how it USED to be. Now, with social media, those of us who are at home and spending our money elsewhere can still participate, and that’s significantly changing the “look” of the neighborhood. In fact, to be honest, I think that’s at the root of some (not all, but some) of the objection to social media: the fact that it enables more people to be heard, and therefore creates some competition for those who used to make up a fairly small circle of elite experts. History is filled with people who lamented changes to their profession and their neighborhood.

  6. Linda Swisher | August 30, 2010 at 1:04 am |

    Thomas, I have always seen more women than men at conferences, and always more people above age 55 than below. I’m not sure it’s an age thing; rather, I think it’s whether genies learned to research in the days before computers, or once computers became standard equipment. Tina’s comment about the woman asking “Aren’t you too young?” reminds me that, at age 54, I’ve been doing this for more than 25 years. Was I too young when I started? No. Did I feel like a dinosaur when I started doing Internet genealogy? Yes; I still do. I’m glad I started pre-computer because I learned the basics of research first. I learned that the 1890 census, for a majority of us, no longer exists. I learned that not everything is online, and when we DID find a resource online, it was a bonus, not taken for granted. I learned that not every John Smith born in a county was my ancestor. On message boards I see people who have traced back 300 years in a week, posting trees without citing sources, wondering why doesn’t have 1840 Texas birth certificates. Some of us try to gently tell the newbies to slow down, take a class, or read a book so they’ll learn what they’re looking at, and how to interpret it. How old are these newbies? All ages, I imagine. However, I feel that the instant gratification of computers is making us all less patient, no matter when we started. Pre-computer researchers knew it could take years to check a census or a group of passenger lists. It would be interesting to survey genies with 20+ years’ experience, asking whether they are as patient when researching in books and original records in this computer age, as they were when they started. How have computers changed the way they research, beyond making the search faster? Do they ever find themselves saying “I would never have made that mistake/taken that shortcut/skipped that step before computers.” Or has it made the pre-computer folks BETTER researchers?

  7. Agreeing with your comments and some of the comments in response. I don’t have children but I do work plus am an only child trying to keep an eye on my elderly parents. Unless, conferences and workshops are somewhat local, I just don’t have the time, etc. to attend. In fact, in real life, I don’t see a lot of genealogist young or old. From a personal perspective, even though I’m considered part of the baby boom generation, I think I’ve been lucky to have been born at the end of that generation, which means I’ve had the benefit of both the old and new way of doing research.

  8. I think the technology gap is shrinking and will continue to shrink. Just this week was the news of the record numbers of Baby boomers that are signing up for Facebook. As more libraries teach older patrons how to use their computers and access records online the tech gap will shrink even more. So where does this or how does this age gap happen? I agree with Tina and Joan on the time and money involved in this “hobby” is not always available to those who are younger. I will also say that the exposure to genealogy is not available to the younger generation. Where do you find hundred and thousands of young people (besides on Facebook)? They are on college campuses. How many traditional colleges or universities offer a single class on genealogy let alone a degree or major? BYU, Boston College, U of WA (continuing Ed program) and who? I am not talking about adult education night classes I am talking about a full semester accredited class. To me that is where the disconnect is. What if schools offered genealogy classes and had a genealogy club along with their math club?? What if Elizabeth Shown Mills (wish we were related) taught a research class for 2 semesters any any university? The next 3, 4, 5 semesters would have waiting lists for her classes because the exposure was given and a fabulous teacher got the students talking. To me, current genealogical education is geared towards older adults only and I believe this age gap is of our own making.

  9. I agree with your comments, and with Tina’s. There are lots of folks using their computers and searching for their ancestors. I really didn’t get to genealogy conferences until the kids were grown up and off on their own…but I was definitely researching long before that.

  10. At FGS, the woman behind me said “Aren’t you too young to be doing genealogy?” I think the age gap is in who people see at their local society meetings and at conferences. Younger people have jobs and can’t attend meetings held during the week. Many have children and can’t get away for meetings. Then there is the expense of conferences. The younger generation can’t afford to attend all the conferences and go on their own vacations. But there are so many young genealogists out there. They may not attend events, but they are definitely using their computers and finding their ancestors.

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