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The Lost Generation

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog

I am contemplating two trends that, taken together, are pretty grim.

The first is our aging population. This trend by itself is not alarming. In fact, as a member of the baby boom expecting a welcome letter from the AARP within the year, I am delighted that my generation is entering its home stretch* in relatively robust health. We can expect to stay actively involved in work, sports, culture, and life in general for years to come. Given our huge numbers, I enjoy the influence we wield on society as government and business scrambles to meet our needs (however much it makes my Gen X and Gen Y office mates grind their teeth). We’ve trained as activists our whole lives, dammit, and we are going to wield that experience to get attention now.

The second is the rotten economy. I know that any faint interest I had in early retirement was banished by contemplating my latest 401(k) statement. That typifies the experience of individuals my age, I think. And I count myself fortunate that a diminished 401(k) is all I currently face–museums are responding to the financial crisis by freezing hiring, downsizing or outsourcing functions whenever possible, and many respected colleagues are out of work.

Between boomers hanging onto existing jobs like grim death, and the spectacular lack of new job openings (confirmed by AAM JobHQ’s plummeting ad revenue) where does that leave today’s and tomorrows’ museum studies students? In a pretty bad spot, I fear.**

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I am particularly empathetic to this situation because my husband faced an analogous scenario trying to break into academia after graduate school in the mid-1980s. His training was in botany—seaweed ecology to be precise—and he had solid history of research and grants topped off by a Masters degree in public policy. Eminently employable, on the face of it. So what was the problem? In a nutshell, nobody was hiring. Old coots were hanging on to tenured faculty positions instead of retiring, so no one was being hired to replace them.

After a few stints as a post-doc (which trust me, gets old real fast) my husband gave up and went into consulting in the for-profit sector. Of his whole cadre of fellow students, very few ended up as practicing research scientists. I don’t think it did America much good to lose a whole generation of ecologists (see what a grand job we’ve done taking care of the environment without their help!) and I worry about the consequences of losing a generation of museum professionals.

This isn’t just altruistic sympathy for the many fine students I have met. I am also concerned what these trends mean for the future of museums as a whole. Consider, for example, the field’s legitimate obsession with diversifying our ranks. As Museums & Society 2034 points out, we face a future in which America is “majority minority” (African American, Latino, Asian, other.) Yet only one in ten core museum visitors today belongs to an ethnic minority. The consensus is that one key to attracting greater minority participation in museums is to “look like them.” In order to understand and serve the needs of our communities, in order to present a welcoming face (literally), we need to have staffs that reflect our community’s demographic composition. That’s certainly not true now– and only one in five museum staff is minority. And the diversity that does exist tends to be concentrated in younger staff, not in the top ranks.

I hear over and over again the plaint from search committees that they want more a more ethnically diverse candidate pool for leadership positions. Well, guess what, you can’t pull minority candidates out of a magic hat. If you want to hire from inside the museum field, the only answer to this dilemma is a long term solution via the pipeline of recruitment and training. And if today’s slightly more diverse students can’t get a job now, where does that leave us in 2034, when we are looking for museum leaders to navigate “minority majority” future?

So its time for some creative group thinking. Let’s figure out how to save this generation of museum professionals in training. Here are some questions to get the conversation started:

  • How can we persuade individual museums to factor into hiring freezes and layoffs the need to nurture the next generation of professionals? How about a table of equivalents: 1 VP = 5 future professionals—invest in the future!
  • How can we maintain connections with museum studies graduates forced to take jobs in other fields? They will be compiling experience in other sectors (private or public) that may make them even more valuable to museums when the economy turns around. Can we keep them engaged as volunteers or adjunct staff? Develop them as prospective board members? Can we solicit and value their input to our community discussions via online forums, blogs, wikis, etc?
  • What can we do to provide ongoing training to museum-professionals-in-waiting? I know one barrier to my friends reentering science, once forced into other lines of work, is how quickly they fell behind developments in their fields. Can we provide attractive, affordable on-going professional development geared to museum studies graduates waiting for opportunities to reenter museum work?
  • What advice can we give museum studies graduates regarding alternate careers? Given their training and interests, to what other professions are they pre-adapted? And what other fields would we like them to enter, in order to skim off the best ideas from those areas of endeavor, and bring them back to us!

Please, everyone, weigh in. If you are a museum studies student or a recent graduate, what is your experience in looking for work? What alternate careers will you consider, if you can’t find a museum job? What would it take, in that circumstance, to keep you engaged in the field? If you are a museum administrator, making decisions about budgets and staff, what are your thoughts on how to retain the next generation? What value does this investment in the future have when weighed against the museum’s immediate needs?

*Indeed, if you believe the Transhumanists we face the prospect of radically longer lives, whether through biomedical breakthroughs or biomechanical enhancements.

**Especially as the museum staff crunch tends to disproportionately affect traditional entry-level positions such as front line staff, and assistants to Head-Pooh Bah in (fill in the blank: administration, exhibits, collections.) This is both because these positions tend to turn over more often (and thus get snagged in a hiring freeze) and because let’s face it, how often do administrators and department heads lay themselves off?

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  1. Thank you for this blog!
    It is a great discussion tool and puts into writing many of the current issues that need to be front and center for discussion.

    With so many new museum studies and public history programs and then students cropping up each year, there are bound to be problems of supply and demand even in an excellent economy. I do not believe that the market can/or should support them all. This may be painful for the field, but it may be necessary.

    I want to mention the problems of those currently employed who are in their early to mid career days. Those who have the experience and the education but their jobs have no growth potential and many are actually losing their jobs at this time. Vast amounts of knowledge and talent will be lost if this middle group leaves the field, which they are now being forced to do in mass.

    Much has been discussed about the graduating students, but not much about those already in the field, who are trained and ready to work. Will these folks have Retirement funds? How long can any of them expect to stay in the museum field?

    Case in point.

  2. Read your latest blog post and it got me thinking. One of the issues I’ve seen mentioned here and there but not really discussed in depth is the minority presence in the museum world.

    “Yet only one in ten core museum visitors today belongs to an ethnic minority. The consensus is that one key to attracting greater minority participation in museums is to “look like them.” “

    One of the hotly contested issues I’ve been working on as a part of comprehensive health care reform is the issue of health disparities, particularly with regard to racial and ethnic minorities. One of the suggestions to address this is to require certain minimum standards for cultural and linguistic competence for health care providers and entities.

    So…would that work in the museum world? Is that necessary for the museum world to ensure appropriate representaion? Supposedly the standard capitalist mechanisms should be working towards equity, but considering the research on how this applies to health care still shows tremendous inequity and significant gaps in the provision of quality services, how can we assume/hope that things will be different for museums?

    What makes them different? Are they different? Or do they too need some requirement to ensure that they actually move towards being truly representative of the people they serve.

    Just a few thoughts.

  3. I am currently watching a very nervous batch of future museum professionals waiting in the wings for jobs that are scarce.
    One friend is possibly taking a year long internship with poor pay but has benefits.
    I told her “Welcome to working in museums!”
    One thing to think about is the number of people who may be coming from a “non-museum studies background” coming into the field. With scarce jobs, the best and brightest may be former teachers, restaurant owners or even extermanators!
    The thing is our industry needs a fresh perspective, and maybe the future needs to be reached with a group of people who are haven’t drank the Kool-Aid.

  4. I think our schools are failing our Museum Studies Students by preparing them for museums circa 1950 instead of Museums 2010. Where is the course on databases, on understanding web page analytics, on using social networking sites? Where are the classes discussing the work of McGonigal, Nina Simone, and Web.2 in general? They’re not there. I’m almost finished with my Masters, and in my program, I was the only one with a Second Life avatar. The irony? I’m 63. This generation needs to join its own times, not linger in the dusty recesses of museums that were obsolete when they were born! And Museum studies programs need to move into the present, too. Making education the center of your museum isn’t enough if you haven’t educated yourself.

  5. As a young museum professional contemplating participating in a graduate school program for museum studies, one factor that I am considering is job opportunities post-graduation. I want to work with museums, but am worried that there won’t be enough jobs available to work in a field I love.

  6. I also worry about the next generation of museum professionals in the US (will there be jobs for my former students, who are a bright and deserving group?). But perhaps this is a good time to point out that we should remember that not all museums are located in the US. I recently returned from three weeks of teaching at the National University of Colombia, in Bogota as an Invited Professor in the Master’s Program in Museology and Cultural Management (loosely translated). The students were outstanding — very creative, energetic, and hard-working. What struck me most forcibly is that a new museology is being formed in Latin America by these young professionals right now. The students have their own visions of the roles of museums in society and how museums should be developed and managed. It was extremely stimulating and refreshing to feel the energy level of the students, even when they challenged what I told them in class (believe me, they were not afraid to speak up if they disagreed!). The future of museums in Latin America looks better in some ways than the future of museums here in the US, and it certainly is beginning to look very different.

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