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What Do Millennials Think Of Historic Preservation?

August 5, 2013

The other day, after making a presentation about corporate social responsibility at American Express, a colleague approached me and said that she thinks that her generation (Millennials) doesn't really care about historic preservation (one of our philanthropic priorities).

This isn't the first time that I've heard this opinion expressed, but I couldn't remember seeing anything written about the subject. So, I decided to dig around.

My first stop was the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington, DC, one of our major nonprofit partners in this cause. Turns out they've done extensive research on the subject and their research doesn't support the above-stated perception.

In fact, the National Trust hasn't found any real difference in level of interest or involvement between Millennials and other segments of the population.

For example, when the National Trust asked thousands of American adults (through an online survey) whether they had made a donation to an historic site or building in the past three years, the percentage of people replying affirmatively was consistent across age groups:

  • Age 18-34 61%
  • Age 35-54 65%
  • Age 55+    62%

When asked whether they had signed a petition to save a historic site or building in the past three years, the results also were consistent across age groups:

  • Age 18-34 70%
  • Age 35-54 67%
  • Age 55+    69%

What the National Trust has learned, according to Terry Richey, its chief marketing officer, is that Millennials want to be active in support of the preservation cause and not passive consumers of information. They want to sign up for action alerts or attend "behind the scenes" tours, for example, but they don't necessarily want to be traditional members.

Finally, the National Trust has learned through its research that about a third of American adults (65 million) hold strong preservation values and that the distribution amongst adults isn't skewed much by age, region, income or ethnicity.

I also found an interesting exchange on the subject "Are Millennials Forging a Distinct New Design Ethos?" on the Internet under "Glass House Conversations," a site of the National Trust. In it, Jesse Ashlock begins the conversation by stating that he believes that Millennials built and popularized Facebook and were the reason that Barack Obama was elected President, that design played a pivotal role in both of these endeavors, and that design factors into the sensibilities of Millennials more than it did previous generations. He asks whether Millennials are shaping a discrete approach to design – like say, postmodernism or the international style – with a recognizable set of values and aesthetics.

While there is some disagreement among the individuals participating in the exchange, Mr. Ashlock summarizes the discussion in the following way:

  • And, yet at the same time, it also sounds like there's considerable agreement about what a millennial ethos looks like – that there are core millennial values that have clear implications as they relate to design. These include: a DIY [Do It Yourself] sensibility that places greater value on being able to make and repair things oneself, breaking down barriers between disciplines (and by extension, I think everything in terms of design), and easy facility with technology, a concern with sustainability and the implications of a throwaway consumer culture, a collaborative energy, and an overall desire to effect social change in a pragmatic (read: non-60s) way.

These characteristics – a concern about sustainability, a greater value placed on making and repairing things oneself, and the implications of a throwaway culture – seem to fit clearly and easily into the goals of historic preservation of buildings and neighborhoods, which is widely viewed as more environmentally friendly than tearing structures down and rebuilding them.

Accordingly, it may be that the words used to describe the work of preservationists and historical societies and organizations with Millennials could focus more on sustainability and adaptive re-use and the environmental impacts of restoring vs. rebuilding – rather than on preserving buildings for their original purposes or maintaining structures and streets for the sake of preserving them for future generations.

What do you think? Are Millennials turned off by, or uninterested in, historic preservation or is it just a perception rather than the reality? We'd love to see your comments. Click hereto send me an email message and we will post them. Alternatively, follow me on Twitter at @timmcclimon and comment there. Thanks for reading and sharing this blog with friends and colleagues.

P.S. Did you know that according to the National Trust about 15 million Americans report that they are "actively involved" in preservation work in their communities (they volunteered, attended a town meeting, signed a petition, made a donation) and that the average age of these activists is 35?

P.P.S. I am honored to have been named to The Nonprofit Times Top 50 Power and Influence list for the second year in a row. Congratulations to the other 49 amazing leaders that were selected this year!


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