Data suggest that audiences do not “age into” greater concern about arts and culture. If organizations want people to care, they need to work to change people’s cause priorities.
Data continue to suggest that the idea of millennials and younger members of Generation X “aging into caring” about certain causes – simply as a function of aging – is false. At IMPACTS, we call this phenomenon cause durability. I’ve shared data about cause durability before, and boy is this finding still inconvenient for those of us working with cultural organizations!
I was reminded of the topic of cause durability while conducting a recent lecture for Harvard University. A thoughtful student asked a popular question regarding engagement within cultural organizations: “Is there data indicating whether or not millennials show more interest in cultural organizations as they age?”
Yes, indeed there is data on this very topic – and it’s time for an update to see how things may have (or have not) evolved since my original sharing of these data in 2015. There is (still) not much reason to believe that folks in our digitally-connected world are likely to stop caring about certain causes and start caring about others as a byproduct of aging.
In a less connected world, it may have been more difficult to empathize with causes that did not directly relate to an individual. Stories related to the circumstances of others were less accessible, and if they weren’t on the front page of the daily newspaper, a person had to actively look for them. Individuals were connected (digitally, at least) to far fewer people. There weren’t viral videos about causes, and people did not have ready access to the same amount of information at their fingertips as they do nowadays.
Today, we live in a different, more connected world. And this may be exactly what cultural executives are forgetting about when they say, “People will grow into caring about arts and culture. Just wait until they get older.”
You don’t have to have your own child in a local school to share concern about the local education system, and one may not default to supporting a local cultural organization instead of one across the country that they believe is more impactful. As more organizations respond to globalization trends, locality increasingly matters less than effectiveness. How we communicate is different than in the past, and the changes in how we connect and communicate may have changed a whole heck of a lot about how we discover and prioritize causes – as well as the durability of these causes.
Let’s look at the data update for three causes over the twelve-year duration from April 2006 to April 2017: marriage equality, the environment, and arts and culture. Then, we’ll dive into what is happening in these charts in terms of cause durability and prioritization. These data come from a study of 5,896 English-speaking adults who are demographically representative of the US population. The different colored lines alone do not indicate different generational cohorts (i.e. millennials)! They represent the level of care for the cause for people in each age bracket over time. (As a friendly (or unfriendly) reminder, we human beings age year over year and, if we’re lucky, we experience all of the age brackets in our lifetime.) When I talk about generational cohorts in this article, I’m not necessarily talking about one line. I’m looking deeper at what is happening.
For us cultural center folks, the cause prioritization of arts and culture is the main event, but I think that observing what is happening in regard to other cause priorities provides helpful context for what is occurring – and how we can potentially work together to bump things up.
Remember: Uninterpreted data is frequently misinterpreted data. The analysis following these charts may be more important than the charts alone. Without analysis, these data are particularly ripe for misinterpretation. (“Oh no! We are losing Generation X!” Not so. I’ll explain.) I mention this because the lack of arts and culture cause prioritization is alarming, and you may notice that immediately.
I’ll be frank: These findings aren’t good for those who work tirelessly for causes related to arts and culture – but understanding what is going on is important. As usual, I think that knowledge is power and we can keep working to make meaningful strides in arts and culture cause prioritization.
With that in mind, let’s charge forward…
Cause durability in action
(What is happening with the 35 – 54 crowd?)
Cause durability is the greatest take-away from these data – and cause durability is what you’re seeing in the major shifts taking place in this age bracket. Millennials and members of Generation X are not changing their cause priorities… they are taking them with them as they mature into new age cohorts. Remember that those between the ages of 25 and 34 in 2006 weren’t all millennials! In fact, the oldest of the millennial cohort were only 26 years old in 2006. Today, the entirety of those between the ages of 18 and 34 are millennials. Interestingly, cause durability does not perfectly align with millennials alone and cause prioritization may align more with those who grew up in the computer-connected information age rather than full, digital natives. In other words, folks: While millennials are super-connected, they certainly do not “own” web-based connectivity, nor are they solely responsible for the entirety of the market trends that have evolved alongside the development of our connected world.
The year 2014 represents an overall turn in cause prioritization for those between the ages of 35 and 54. It was in 2014 that the cause prioritization scales tipped and enough folks with differing cause prioritization had aged into the 35–54 age cohort. The sharp increases (in marriage equality and the environment) and the decrease (in arts and culture) in 2014 weren’t due to some major event that year. As enough folks with cause durability aged in to a new bracket, they took their cause priorities along with them and it tipped the cause prioritization measurement of the entire age bracket!
While cause durability is seen in full force among millennials throughout these charts, it actually developed its stronghold among members of Generation X. The oldest of the millennials were only 34 when cause prioritization shifted among the 35-54 age cohort in 2014. (This seems a good time to remind everyone that while we may not give them their fair share of generational conversation, Generation X is not chopped liver.)
2014. This, readers, is where an old world meets a new world in data form. It is a shift in how we think and prioritize causes captured in a chart. It may not be until there is another major shift in the information age that we see a dip/spike like the ones depicted here. How flipping cool is that?!
Newer connectivity meets past perspectives
(What is happening with the 55+ crowd?)
You’ll notice in each of these charts that the 55+ crowd’s cause durability is moving in the direction of younger generations. In fact, a Pew Research Center update on public attitudes about gay marriage by generations noted that year 2017 is the first year in which the majority of Baby Boomers (56%) support gay marriage.
The reasons for this may be threefold: First, like other generations, those 55+ have access to more information, stories, and causes than ever before, and this may be allowing for introduction to new cause priorities. Second, new age cause durability may be moving into this age bracket as younger boomers – and recently, older members of Gen X – age into this cohort. Third, the 55+ crowd may be more influenced by younger generations than previous generations aged 55+ were in the past.
There is compelling evidence that the attitudes and beliefs of younger generations inform and influence the attitudes and beliefs of older generations. A 2013 study published by researchers at the Centre for Environmental Policy and the Department of Life Sciences at the London Imperial College assessed the influence of childhood environmental education on the knowledge of their parents and household behaviors. The study demonstrated that households exhibiting improved home water management behaviors had children who had received related environmental education.
In introducing their study, the researchers cite:
“The commonly held view is that parents teach their children, inculcating their knowledge, values and beliefs. However, a growing body of literature provides evidence for bi-directional influence between parents and children.”
A decade earlier, a landmark study published in 2003 by researchers at the University of Wisconsin examined the hypothesis that children transfer learnings and principles to their parents. Interestingly, the study suggested that children’s knowledge and principles influence not only their parents, but also the macro community. The study’s authors theorize that “parents learned from children and both groups transmitted course information to neighbors (control group) resulting in an increase in control group learning.”
But is this a new phenomenon? In many ways, yes. Millennials are thought to be the first generation to “influence up.”
Why millennials aren’t aging into arts and cultural causes
(What is happening with the 18 – 34 crowd?)
With scalar variables under 45 for millennial cause prioritization of arts and cultural causes, we’re looking more at disagreement than agreement. These numbers are under 50, so millennials are not even at ambivalent levels of cause prioritization for arts and culture.
While this is not great news, it’s not altogether surprising. Cultural organizations have what I’ll optimistically call a “millennial opportunity.” Simply, data suggest that millennials are the most frequent visitors to cultural organizations and also – in part because this generation is so large – the generational cohort that is not visiting at representative levels. Millennials are the ones to attract and the ones to keep happy. Millennials also have the most unrealized visitation potential. If ever there were a situation to resent the need to provide millennials with special treatment – this may be it. As a millennial, even I cannot hold it against you.
That said, the need to reach millennials (and with them, folks of different racial and ethnic backgrounds than historic visitors to cultural organizations), is particularly urgent.
The low levels of cause prioritization may be the result of several different things: Nontraditional audiences feeling unwelcome at cultural organizations; arts and culture potentially not being as empathy-inspiring and connective as other human or animal issues in the way that they’ve heretofore been communicated; not collectively considering the changing needs of connected audiences until late in the game; or even simply saying ignorantly for many years, “Just wait until they grow up…”
Well, they’ve grown up. It’s (past) go time.
But all isn’t lost! Cultural organizations can – and are – working diligently to turn things around. The uptick in engagement in the 25-34 demographic may seem small, but it’s a step in the right direction – and it’s likely the outcome of many organizations working hard to improve their reputations and operations. It’s an uptick that may be worth a note of small celebration, and an indicator of budding promise. It’s certainly an uptick to watch.
These data may further underscore that millennial talk is increasingly “everyone talk.” Millennial behaviors and preferences often serve as a canary in the coal mine for broader market trends. Those trends that are often associated with millennials – digital connectivity, social media, transparency, real-time responsiveness, and social responsibility – aren’t the exclusive province of millennials. Instead, these trends often serve as indicators of the direction in which the world is more broadly moving.
Engaging millennials – and, increasingly, other audiences – involves mindset shifts within organizations. It involves integrating new strategies rather than simply adding additional programs. It’s an opportunity that the industry is tackling piece-by-piece and bit-by-bit…and perhaps that’s our best pathway out of general millennial ambivalence.
The good news? We can see the opportunity and we can watch our impact over time. It isn’t until we understand that something is broken that we can fix it.
We may risk long-term irrelevance if we keep on repeating, “Just wait until those kids grow up. Then they’ll visit!” They have grown up – with or without care for the cause of arts and cultural organizations.
Let’s keep moving forward creating connections, driving meaning, and remembering that people matter to our organizations. Without visitors and supporters, we do not exist. And if we don’t exist, well…that’s not a world that I’d like to imagine.
(What about you?)
Let’s keep moving.