Millennials are not “aging into” an affinity for cultural organizations. Here’s what this means for these entities.
“Just wait. Millennials will care about [museums, zoos, aquariums, performing arts] when they get older…”
This has been a common refrain among board members and executive leaders within the cultural, visitor-serving industry over the last decade – particularly as it has become clear that though millennials make up the largest generation visiting cultural organizations, millennials are not visiting these organizations at representative rates. Not only that, our inability to engage millennials representatively is contributing to our shrinking visitor base.
I entered the cultural organization speaking circuit in 2010 when this conversation was first picking up speed and leaders began to notice that millennials – the largest generation in human history – were not visiting at anticipated levels. I joined IMPACTS and started regularly participating in meetings with executives on the topic in 2011. While the cultural industry has acknowledged the problem and made great strides in evolving to engage audiences in a more connected world, it’s interesting how much things have not changed in regard to how often I still hear an executive or board member roll their eyes at data suggesting the need to actively engage young audiences.
When I first entered these conversations, some said, “Just wait until millennials join the workforce. Then things will change!” Millennials joined the workforce (and have since tipped the scales as the largest generation in the US labor force). Things did not change.
Then they said, “Just wait until they get married.” Still, no change.
Then, “Things will change when they have kids!”
Today, the oldest millennials are nearly 39 years old, and organizations are still struggling to reach this audience.
Soon leaders may be saying, “Just wait until millennials have grandchildren! Then they will change their views! Just wait for that day!”
Joking aside, this sentiment is understandable. After all, non-millennial executive leaders were once 20-somethings and 30-somethings themselves! They may have experienced their own cause priorities changing as they entered the workforce, found partners, had kids, and grew into other life experiences.
The problem, however, is that this is not happening with millennials. Many of their cause priorities are not dramatically changing as they age, as older generations may have hypothesized.
Millennials display cause durability as they age
At IMPACTS, cause durability is what we call the phenomenon of people carrying their primary causes and values with them as they enter new age groups. Essentially, we find that certain causes are durable over time. At IMPACTS, we track cause priorities for issues such as marriage equality, environmental concern, and arts and culture.
Here’s a look at cause priority in action:
Instead of “aging into” concern about arts and culture, millennials and younger members of Generation X have maintained their relative lack of concern about arts and culture as they age.
In 2014, the cause prioritization scales tipped and enough folks with differing cause prioritization had aged into the 35–54 age cohort. The sharp 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 next, entire age bracket! I’ve written more in-depth about this data and the 2014 shift – alongside similar data regarding environmental concern and marriage equality among millennials – in this article.
Millennials and younger members of Generation X are not suddenly abandoning certain beliefs, causes, and perceptions as a simple function of growing older. Instead, they are carrying those beliefs with them as they age.
A scalar variable of 50 is not a particularly strong measure of priority; instead, it is indicative of the multitude of issues that crowd our bandwidth when it comes to causes that compete for our time and concern. A scalar value in the 40s among people under age 54 is important to note, as it represents a significant opportunity for organizations that focus on arts and culture to actively engage these audiences. The opportunity revolves around strategically highlighting our relevance, missions, and unique experience. In short, these data show that we need to work to be relevant, and not necessarily assume that we are relevant by existing alone.We benefit by being active in engaging audiences, rather than passively waiting and hoping for change.
Here’s another, pressing example of a situation in the cultural organization world in which cause durability plays an important and complex role: Let’s talk a bit about zoos and aquariums. Millennials have very different levels of agreement regarding statements surrounding zoos and aquariums than their older counterparts. Here are a few of many examples of this trend that we have spotted at IMPACTS.
In this data, a difference of even one point is significant. These differences are huge!
While interest in the environment represents positive cause durability among millennials, zoos and aquariums are perceived more negatively among millennials than older adults. What gives?
It may be conflicting cause priorities. Let’s take dolphin shows, for example. A higher percentage of adults consider dolphin shows fun and a good place to take the family than millennial audiences. And a higher percentage of millennial audiences think dolphin shows are cruel to dolphins.
When confronted with data like these, it may be tempting for a zoo or aquarium leader to think, “Oh! This will just change when these millennials grow up!” And in fact, that seems to be what many do say (as recently as at the Association of Zoos and Aquariums conference last week)!
As we see, millennials have less favorable perceptions of zoos and aquariums than older, non-millennials. They have less favorable views of dolphin shows, in particular. Taking a deeper look at cause priority can shine a light on this topic and help us make sense of the trend so that we are better able to interact with our audiences.
Here it is:
The belief that dolphins should not be kept in captivity for any reason has increased 16% among older adults and 23% among millennials since 2005. Not only are millennials not aging out of this belief, but older adults are changing their opinions, too.
The opportunity arising from these data – both for arts and culture-based cultural organizations and for zoos and aquariums – is not to despair at your desk (necessarily). Successfully engaging audiences means understanding their values and causes and respecting them so cultural organizations can be as relevant as possible.
Cause durability may be a function of environment more than age
“But my cause priorities changed when I was in my 20s! They will change for millennials, I tell you!” The problem with this reasoning is that it implies that cause durability is entirely a function of age, rather than an increasing result of the new, connected world in which we live.
If you’re a Baby Boomer, then you may have come of age with many formative things taking place: Kennedy’s assassination, US sending troops to Vietnam, and the first moon landing, to name a few.
Similarly, millennials are shaped by the events surrounding their coming of age, and especially by widespread adoption of the Internet. The web has enabled an entirely different way of connecting with people, stories, and information. And the web doesn’t just impact millennials. The web has created big shifts in how we gain and understand information among all generations.
In a less connected world, it may have been more difficult to empathize with causes that did not directly relate to an individual – simply because there was less access to information when compared to today. 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 massive amounts of information at their fingertips as they do nowadays. 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 you may not default to supporting a local cultural organization instead of one across the country that you 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 lot about how we discover and prioritize causes – as well as the durability of these causes.
It’s not age alone that informs belief and opinions – it’s the environment and access to information that may make this generation (and those who come after it) different.
On the whole, millennials are no longer “kids.” While we may be a bit sick of talking about this generation so frequently, we do so for good reason: Millennials are both the generation that cultural organizations need to keep happy as frequent visitors, and the generation that cultural organizations must do a better job of attracting. They are a critical audience to engage to survive long-term. This is where cause prioritization comes in. It measures how people view our causes/missions. It’s one thing to entice a millennial to enjoy a cocktail after hours in the galleries, but this isn’t necessarily the same thing as gaining cause prioritization. If we aren’t engaging people (telling stories, creating relevant programs) such that we successfully build the case for what we stand for, then it’s more difficult to secure a visit, but potentially a lot more difficult to secure support.
We can keep repeating, “Just wait. Millennials will care about [museums, zoos, aquariums, performing arts] when they get older…”
…Or we could stop saying this and accept that sitting and waiting for new audiences to change – without evolving to actively be more relevant to this audience – is a bad strategy.