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Generational Shifts

by Elyssa Jechow

Generation Y (Gen Y) – Millenials, born between 1981 and 2001 – is, as I recently learned, also commonly referred to as Generation Me. Matchstick Strategies says that five important characteristics of Gen Y are: tech savvy, ambitious, fickle, communicators, and impatient.

I’ll be the first to admit that I was appalled that my own generation had been bluntly dubbed as self-centric. I mean, we’ve basically grown up during one of the most rapid periods of change in all of history – we’re going to be a little different, right? So I started searching, and I found this little gem.

“We’re disrupting traditional models simply because that makes sense.” (Burstein, Fast Company)

This is where a shift in gears, making an arts discussion relevant, is appropriate. Over the past few years, arts organizations in America have seen a decline in patrons across the boards. The immediate conclusion one might draw is that people just don’t have the money; our country is in a recession. But what about that statement above from Mr. Burstein? Another major factor I might throw out there is that arts organizations are struggling with how to cope with a decline in big dollar donations, and with a seemingly self-centered young adult audience. However, given the amount of change that we have seen in the past few decades, are organizations merely overlooking the fact that they too must adapt?

Target Research Group (TRG Arts), a respected arts and marketing consulting group, has recently conducted some compelling research on this matter. In a nutshell, their findings indicate that of Gen Y (which, by the way, makes up twenty five percent of the population), ninety three percent gave to non-profits in the past year. Astounding. But think about it. Most of those under the age of thirty who are giving are not writing million dollar checks. In fact, of that ninety three percent who gave, fifty eight percent said their largest donation was $150. Times are changing.

I have met plenty of arts administrators who are still frustrated with the fact that they’re having trouble continuing to attract the dreamed-about big dollar donations, but I think that maybe we need to come back down to reality and focus our efforts a bit more where they are going to start mattering the most. How do we begin to attract and leverage this newly-of-age generation of enthusiastic (yes, we really are) donors and patrons?

If we dig a little deeper, we find out a little bit more about this shifting demographic of givers. TRG found that as donors, Gen Y’ers receive vast amounts of information, have a short attention span (which means that we are probably less loyal than say, a Baby Boomer), are interested in volunteering and being involved, are also interested in spreading the word, and make decisions about who to donate to based on emotion.

In the coming weeks and through a series of articles, I would like to propose that arts organizations not write off Generation Y because we are the so-called “Generation Me.” I would like to see more organizations learn how putting in the effort and getting to know the group better might be combined with the research about Gen Y as givers. Arts organizations have gotten comfortable with tried and true strategies for attracting donors and patrons, but it might just be time to shake things up a bit.

*****

Articles of Related Interest from The Muse Dialogue

A Question of Arts Survival?” by Andrew Swensen

“Some [Don’t] Like it Hot: A Perspective on Targeting Young Audiences, Part I” by Kelly Englert

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. I am writing a paper on this very topic and will present on it next week! I am also researching Millennial engagement strategies for symphony orchestras for my master’s project research, to be completed this spring. Great topic! ; )

    2012
  2. To me, this entire discussion goes into the category of stating the obvious. Every generation has related to the professional arts in it’s own way. I’ve read articles written in every decade since the 1930s that bemoan the struggle of getting the “young people” engaged in the future of the particular art form under discussion. Of course the shift into self-centric egoism endemic to this generation adds a challenging complexity. It’s up to the arts administrator to understand and harness this force for good! Inside the heart of every tech-driven, self-satisfied, expert-on-everything Gen Y patron, I find the the echo of the status-driven, self-satified, expert-on everything country club matron of another time. Both personalities are equally intent on pushing the participation of their social network to their particular passion. As ever, it’s our business to find those influencers and give them the help they need to succeed. I adore the optimism of “Generation Me.” They have never lost a battle!

    2012
    • Michelle, I think the difference in this shift in generations and the struggle to maintain arts support, lies largely in the financial situation, funding cuts, etc. that most arts organizations are in some way affecting many arts organizations. We also see that audiences are not being replaced with younger folks. I think the difference this time is that organizations are going to have to give up the tried and true methods of attracting audiences and re-evaluate how they are going to continue to attract patrons. Like you said, it’s up to the arts administrator to understand and harness this force for good, but I don’t see that that is happening. I’ll be writing more on this soon!

      2012
      • I agree with both of you in many ways. Michelle – I this was a particularly powerful and true insight, “As ever, it’s our business to find those influencers and give them the help they need to succeed.”

        MuseDialogue – “We also see that audiences are not being replaced with younger folks. I think the difference this time is that organizations are going to have to give up the tried and true methods of attracting audiences and re-evaluate how they are going to continue to attract patrons.” All I can say to this is, YES! I think there is a necessary and fundamental shift in the way we reach out and involve Millennials in arts experiences, although not to the exclusion of currently faithful audiences and donors, of course.

        I think the key will be striking a balance between stewarding the current patrons, while attracting the new. That being said, such efforts have to embody more than simply jumping on the bandwagon. The organization’s leadership and staff must believe in the need to be forward thinking and emphasize relevance in the 21st century. With so much competition for entertainment, we cannot expect audiences and fans to come to us. We must work actively to show them why we’re important and exciting.

        Anyway, I’m looking forward to reading and chatting more!! This is exactly what I have been researching in regards to symphony orchestras. I will be writing more about Millennial audiences and donors and how nonprofit arts organizations, symphony orchestras especially, can engage these 21st century patrons.

        2012

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