This past November I turned 57. Depending on which demographer you choose to believe, I am either a Baby Boomer or a member of the elusively-defined Generation “X.” My older cousins wore POW-MIA bracelets to honor soldiers captured in the Vietnam War. Some went to Woodstock, others got stuck on the Thruway trying to get there. I was surrounded by people who fought for racial and gender equality, protested against injustice, questioned authority, broke dress codes, and stepped outside of social norms. There was a clear divide from older generations fueled by a mutual lack of trust; places and spaces to come together and agree on politics, music, or values were few and far between.
I held part-time jobs through college and graduate school, and paid off my student loans by the time I was 40. Once I entered the museum world, I was frequently the youngest person in the room. I was told to be quiet in meetings and deferential to senior staff. A colleague stopped me after a meeting to tell me that I shouldn’t act like I knew what I was doing, because I didn’t. About a year later that person apologized, admitted that they spoke harshly, and hadn’t given me a chance. I have never forgotten that apology because it taught me how to gracefully admit when I had done something wrong.
We are once again at a time when a generational divide has sown a lack of trust in our society and in our workplace and distracted us from achieving common goals that would benefit ourselves, our families, and our organizations. I know I have complained about having to learn yet another new way to electronically manage files, send emails, or keep a calendar to accommodate how my staff tracked my travel. But recently, someone reminded me how it felt to be the youngest person in the room.
The divide between older and younger museum professionals may be more about history, culture, and technology than money or political power, but the gap is real. If you are a Baby Boomer in the position to hire a new staff person, you can find articles on LinkedIn about traits you need to know and practice to successfully train a Millennial. A Millennial told me it was one of the most condescending things that they had ever read.
A Pew Research Center study from the fall of 2019 confirmed what most of us already know, that Millennials are the fastest growing sector of non-profit professionals, leading older Americans in their adoption and use of technology. Millennials are not the ones hanging out in bars until last call. They have young children and mortgages, are passionately dedicated to the museum field, and won’t be able to retire their student loan debt before they turn 40.
The generation divide in museums may also be defined by how you learned to do your job. Did you have a typewriter at your first desk? Did someone deliver a press proof that you edited by cutting and pasting text and sending it back to a typesetter? If you answered these questions with “yes” and remember how it felt when that first computer was delivered to you, I ask you think about how those tools changed the way you communicated, managed projects, and produced exhibitions. Now imagine never having to change and learning how to do your job already fluent and highly skilled with those tools. Many Baby Boomer and Generation “X” colleagues question younger staff about why they want to do things differently and discuss the challenges of working with Millennials. It may be time for those of us with gray hair to remember how it felt to be told to keep quiet and be deferential.
Gathering together generationally may feel safe, but it also may be distracting us from larger issues in our field and diverting our attention from ways in which we can advance our institutions. If it can fit your schedule and your budget, come to the MANY museum conference in Albany, get out of your comfort zone, and let’s find a safe space together to build trust and share ideas without regard to the year on our birth certificates.
Photo: “Don’t Trust Anyone Over Thirty” was a phrase coined by Jack Weinberg in the 1960s (courtesy of the Button Museum).