Thursday, August 25, 2016

The Age Curve by Kenneth W. Gronbach

Why I Read It: I heard the author speak at a conference, and immediately bought in.

Summary: Demographic changes on the horizon should make us all look closely at how we conduct businesses of many kinds.

My Thoughts: It's simple math, but it's math that many of us are overlooking. I know this for a fact, because I tried to throw out some long-term demographic thinking at a meeting recently that was brushed off as quickly as I got it out. It's the difference between thinking short-term and thinking long-term. For instance, I recently went to buy a car and was told that now was a good time to buy a hybrid, because the dealer was offering heavy incentives to do so. Why? Gas prices had dropped from a few months ago. Really, people are that short-sighted? They go back to Hummers because gas is $2.50 a gallon instead of $3? Doesn't the long-term forecast - as with every other consumable in the world - show that gas prices will eventually rise? With my extra $3000 off, I scooped up the hybrid and started saving money on gas immediately, knowing I was not only paying $2.50 a gallon now, but was only getting gas once a month. Long-term, not short-term.

The author's point is that time moves forward, inexorably, and we can't change the past to create the future we want. When we look at the chart of U.S. live births from 1905 forward, we see definite 20-year patterns - the G.I. Generation, the Silent Generation, the Baby Boomers, Generation X - and what looks like a 25-year grouping of Generation Y births, the Millenials. The main story we are faced with now is that the Boomers are retiring and Generation X is taking charge of the country's infrastructure, but there are 11% fewer of them (or, "us," I should say) than there were of the Boomers. Generation X won't be able to fill the shoes of the Boomers, not because of quality issues like work ethic, but because there were just way too many shoes in comparison. For every ten Boomer retirees, nine Gen X'ers stand ready to take their places.

So what does this mean for the country? If it's a service the Boomers want or need as retirees, expect a fifteen-or-so-year run, but then be faced with the fact that the population of retirees falls off the cliff when Generation X starts to hit 65. Businesses providing those services will need to consider consolidation, mergers or getting out of the business and moving into services that Generation Y can use, because that's where the greatest portion of the population will be.

Let me give you an example that I have been thinking about (not from the author's work, but inspired by his thinking). For many years I have worked with local historical societies. They have had a strong run since the beginning of the twentieth century (a reaction to immigration and the potential loss of local identity), but have always found it hard to do two things: find new board members and attract young families. The running joke is that local societies have always been run by "little old ladies in white tennis shoes" (women, on average, outliving men). And they've done a good job, but can they, as a force, sustain the pattern?

Consider what I stated above. Once Generation X hits 65, there will quickly become a dearth of retirees in comparison to the previous generation. That's strike one. There will simply be fewer people around who typically fit the description of local historical society leaders. Sadly, this also takes away a large portion of the membership that attends lectures, nostalgic programs and more. Fewer people will be available to run historical societies, and fewer will be interested in what they have to offer.

But there are more factors involved. The typical local historical society board member has strong ties to his or her community. He can say, "I was born on Main Street, right between the Smith house and the Washington house. My dad ran the local gas station, right over there, and my mom taught at the elementary school for 36 years." How many of us can say that any more? We have become transient as a society and no longer can claim that the old adage "you marry someone born within 25 miles of where you were born" is absolutely true. We're not local in nature any more. There will be fewer and fewer people with long, deep knowledge of local landscapes, people who are really dedicated to the preservation of their hometown history. That's strike two.

Can you see a pattern? Now, consider this final pitch. Local historical societies are just that - local. I had the pleasure of working with a friend who was as fiercely dedicated to his hometown as anybody I have ever met. He had this beat-up old pickup truck that he bumped all over town, and we used to joke that it had never seen the neighboring towns. Wouldn't you know it, one day he was driving it to next next town over, and it died on the town border. Local historical societies as they currently operate are just that myopic; they can't see beyond the borders of their towns. In coming years, with the factors above brewing, the first best course of action for historical societies will be consolidation of governance into regional boards of directors covering several local towns. But Springfield wants nothing to do with Shelbyville, and Shelbyville definitely wants nothing to do with North Haverbrook. The only saving grace here is that the generation that will be in charge, Generation X, will not have the fierce local fidelity of the Boomers, and might actually consider consolidation. But what happens if local towns can't work and play well together? A lot of padlocked buildings, the redistribution of artifacts to regional, state and national level institutions (there will still be costs like insurance that will have to be met, without revenue coming in from membership) and a loss of local identity.

So, what's the answer, to avoid the strikeout? Engage Generation Y. Exhibits will have to become less static, more digital. Programs will have to become kid-friendly, catering to young families. Membership packages must have perks the whole family can enjoy. Societies will have to teach history through fun at an early age, as kids no longer get it in school. Elementary schools now teach to standardized math and English tests and have made science and history sidelights of the school year. The STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) movement has arisen as a counterculture for the science side, and science museums and nature centers have become integral partners in science education; history has no such counterpart movement. And - most importantly - understand that American history is not as "white" as it used to be. Societies will have to embrace all of the cultures that make - and have made - their communities great, so that they might become a part of the future of the local history world. We are growing more diverse as a country, not less, and that must be reflected in our local historical societies. Then, with families engaged, and a broader spectrum of cultures involved, Generation Y may provide the leadership needed. If it benefits their kids, they will be willing to support it.

So, yes, once you understand the march of the generations through time, you can see how things have to change. Thank you, Ken Gronbach. My eyes have been opened!


  1. This is very thought provoking. I had never really thought of myself as having lived a "transient" life, but I guess I have. Growing up I lived in Weymouth, Topsfield, and then NH before going off to Maine to college and then CT after. I don't have any real connection to any of those places. I guess I have some connection to where I live now (I have lived here for 23 years), but I did not grow up here, so it is just different. I see that the people who did grow up here have a much different connection to the town.

    My boys who are in their late teens, have spent their whole lives in one place. Will that make a difference when it comes to volunteering to keep a place like the historical society running? Of course, once they finish college, they may not stay here. It depends on where their jobs (hopefully they have jobs) take them.

    I do agree that figuring out a way to make places like historical societies engaging to Gen Y is key. Then, even if they move as adults, they may look to engage in their new location and bring new ideas.

    I'm not sure how to go about that and I'm not keen on those exhibits where the kids just run around from exhibit to exhibit pushing buttons and not really learning anything (Old fogey baby boomer that I am - never realized all my sibs were gen Xers). There must be some places that do it "right" and that is worth researching.

    Interesting stuff. It is worth thinking about what groups, like the historical society, I would want preserved and how we could help them to adapt to remain relevant to future generations.


    1. It's an amazing thing, once you start to look at the chart of live U.S. births and see how it affects everything. Suddenly so many of the changes that have taken place in the world make sense.

      I agree one hundred percent that there must be places that get it, but I wonder if they "get it" because they've studied demography, or just understand multi-generational marketing.

      As a sidelight, I've been watching country clubs fading with time, at least those that do not understand that changes have to occur for them to succeed. I'll bet you we could study membership in fraternal organizations, the DAR and so many more such groups, and watch trends there that can be traceable back to the U.S. live births chart.

      It's been eye-opening, for sure!