Demographic Changes in the U.S.: What Do They Mean for the Humanities?

Audience

The audience listens intently to Paul Taylor’s presentation at the National Humanities Conference, Philadelphia, October 31, 2014. Photograph by Mark Garvin, courtesy PA Humanities Council/Federation of State Humanities Councils.

By Linda Shopes

Paul Taylor

Paul Taylor. Photograph by Sarah Navarro, courtesy Pew Research Center.

If current trends continue, by 2060 58 percent of the population of the United States will be nonwhite, with Hispanics forming the largest minority/majority.  In that same year, the number of Americans under 5 and over 85 years of age will be approximately the same, with not a lot of variation in between.  These two demographic shifts, unprecedented in U.S. history, framed the plenary address delivered by Paul Taylor, senior fellow at the Pew Research Center and author of The Next America: Boomers, Millennials, and the Looming Generational Showdown, at the National Humanities Conference in Philadelphia, October 31, 2014.  The conference is the annual meeting of the Federation of State Humanities Councils, the membership association of state and territorial councils.  The theme of this year’s conference was Leadership in a Time of Change. 

Social Implications

Drawing upon data amassed by the Pew Research Center, Taylor addressed the enormous ramifications of a population that is both increasingly diverse and aging:  Families are becoming more multiracial/multiethnic and multigenerational, as both intermarriage and the number of two- and three- generation households increase.  The number of people receiving Social Security and Medicare benefits is growing, while that of workers paying into these systems is declining – even as the wealth gap between the old and the young is becoming more pronounced.  The partisan voting divide between more conservative older people and more liberal younger people is also increasing, reflecting significant differences on issues ranging from gay marriage and the legalization of marijuana to the proper role of government and foreign policy.  Participation in organized religion is declining:  the younger the age cohort, the less likely its members are to claim a religious affiliation.  And the age-related disparity in use of and comfort with technology is well known. 

Next America

The Next America. Courtesy Pew Research Center.

Each of these changes brings its challenges to individuals, to families, and to communities.  But, Taylor averred, the biggest challenge we face as a nation is “generational equity.”  Are we, he asked, “to maintain the status quo or take a step backwards?”   Of particular concern is the future of the social safety net, primarily Social Security and Medicare.  While the vast majority of Americans support these programs, they are not sustainable at current levels – today’s Millenials (those born after 1980) will not be able to receive the benefits Boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) now receive.  Given the demographic, economic, and political differences dividing these two groups, as well as those in between, just how Americans will address the broad issue of equity remains an open question.   Taylor concluded with both wisdom and warning as he recalled the Greek proverb, “Society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.”

What This Means for the Humanities:  New Audiences, New Programs

For those in attendance – for all of us involved in public humanities – the question is what do these demographic shifts mean for our work.  Interviewed after Taylor’s talk, Marilyn P. Whittington, executive director of the Delaware Humanities Forum (DHF), and Briann G. Greenfield, executive director of the New Jersey Council for the Humanities (NJCH), found what Taylor had to say not especially surprising; the issue is figuring out how to respond to the changing face of America – and that is not easy.  Or as Whittington put it, “White America is not going to be very white for very much longer, a fact that can be intimidating even to our mostly white, well educated audiences.”  Additionally, Greenfield noted that “while the mandate of the humanities councils is to be a bridge between the academy and the public, academic professionals, who are largely white, typically don’t have the infrastructure, expertise, or experience to connect meaningfully with diverse local communities.  We need to do better to equip them to address big issues in an accessible manner.”

Galesville, Maryland Hot Sox, a local African American sandlot team that occasionally played against National Negro League teams during the era of segregation.  From the Hometown Teams Smithsonian Institution Museum on Main Street exhibition, touring Maryland in 2015 under the auspices of the Maryland Humanities Council.   Courtesy Galesville Community Center.

1978 Galesville, Maryland Hot Sox, a local African American sandlot team that occasionally played against National Negro League teams during the era of segregation. From the Hometown Teams Smithsonian Institution Museum on Main Street exhibition, touring Maryland in 2015 under the auspices of the Maryland Humanities Council. Courtesy Galesville Community Center.

Part of the answer lies in fresh thinking about both audience and programming.  Brett Bonfield, director of the Collingswood Public Library and secretary of the NJCH Board, made the point that “if we’re going to make good decisions, it seems worth understanding New Jersey residents’ demographics and attitudes, and what changes we should anticipate.”  As part of its current strategic planning process, the New Jersey Council looks to include organizations it has not typically served, such as social service organizations, schools, and churches, in a series of conversations to find out what humanities-oriented work is being done and what could be done. 

The Maryland Humanities Council recently completed a planning process, and Phoebe Stein, its executive director, reports on the outcome:

What we heard from our stakeholders is that we need greater visibility in their communities and a longer-term, “more authentic” presence in them.  Our new public radio series, Humanities Connection, has brought a significant boost to our visibility in a number of regions throughout the state. We are also investing in a new website that can accommodate those people connecting with us through mobile devices. The number of folks reaching us by tablet, cell phone, or other mobile device (22 percent of the total) has doubled in each of the past three years.  Also in response to the feedback we received and a number of other factors including declining audiences, we have sunsetted our Speakers Bureau program, which brought a speaker or performer into a community for a morning or afternoon.  We are focused now on year-round programs in communities and solidifying our participation in Museum on Main Street, a Smithsonian traveling exhibition program that forges a two-year relationship (and beyond) with five different communities around the state every three years.  We also have plans for local volunteer committees and/or staffed offices in regions around the state.

Rachael Simon, center, author of Riding the Bus with My Sister, with participants at an event sponsored by the Delaware Humanities Forum.   (The book depicted, The Story of Beautiful Girl, is Simon’s most recent publication.)  Photograph by Marilyn Whittington, courtesy Delaware Humanities Forum.

Rachael Simon, center, author of Riding the Bus with My Sister, with participants at an event sponsored by the Delaware Humanities Forum. (The book depicted, The Story of Beautiful Girl, is Simon’s most recent publication.) Photograph by Marilyn Whittington, courtesy Delaware Humanities Forum.

Similarly, Whittington noted the success of a DHF program featuring Rachael Simon, author of Riding the Bus with My Sister, chronicling her experiences with her developmentally disabled sister Beth, whose days focus on riding buses around her Pennsylvania hometown.  Participants in the DHF Literature and Medicine had read Simon’s book; in her public lecture she spoke about people with disabilities’ experiences with the health care system.   The large audience included intergenerational families, members of the autistic community, and children with Down syndrome. 

Bonfield, Greenfield, Whittington, and Stein also had a number of observations and suggestions about programming that could extend the reach of the councils’ work:  Appeal to entire households and to people who claim multiple identities – “sentient microcosms of our ‘mosaic’ society” in Bonfield’s words – not specific audience segments.  Adopt less formal, more participatory formats, with, as Greenfield phrases it, “less input, more conversation.”  Recognize and cultivate the rich, often irreverent on-line culture especially popular among Millenials and use shorter readings, Tumblr sites, YouTube videos, and other multimedia content rather than book length print materials as conversation starters.  Take programs off campuses and other formal sites of learning to public spaces such as parks, cafes, and bars, where people go to socialize and converse, places like Wilmington’s One World Café, a performance venue and restaurant located in a refurbished theater, where the DHF has held programs. 

Using the Humanities to Address Change

Beyond rethinking audiences and programming, the humanities themselves offer opportunities for addressing the challenges of an emerging America.  The tools and languages of the humanities – history, literature, art, music, cultural expression of all kinds – are, as Greenfield puts it, “a way to see beyond our own individual experience, to see how others experience the world.  They can cultivate empathy.  And programs like reading and discussion groups that take place over time can forge a sense of collective identity among diverse participants.”  “Unlike the arts or STEM,” Bonfield adds, “the humanities don’t cost a lot of money – they are available to all.” 

Scholars and musicians at Blues People @50, a program celebrating the 50th anniversary of the publication of Amiri Baraka’s, Blues People, sponsored by the Institute on Ethnicity, Culture, and the Modern Experience, Rutgers Newark, with the support of the New Jersey Council for the Humanities, 2013; l to r: Guthrie Ramsey, Dan Morgenstern, Steve Colson, Robert O’Meally, and Farah Jasmine Griffin.  Photograph by Fred Stucker, courtesy Rutgers Institute on Ethnicity, Culture, and the Modern Experience.

Scholars and musicians at Blues People @50, a program celebrating the 50th anniversary of the publication of Amiri Baraka’s, Blues People, sponsored by the Institute on Ethnicity, Culture, and the Modern Experience, Rutgers Newark, with the support of the New Jersey Council for the Humanities, 2013; l to r: Guthrie Ramsey, Dan Morgenstern, Steve Colson, Robert O’Meally, and Farah Jasmine Griffin. Photograph by Fred Stucker, courtesy Rutgers Institute on Ethnicity, Culture, and the Modern Experience.

Still, there is the issue of generational equity, which involves policy issues and, if it is to be addressed, political solutions.  Here humanities organizations, if they receive public support, need to tread lightly and avoid overreach.  Still, issues of equity do have a place in the humanities because social justice is necessarily about a society’s values and the humanities support the discussion of values.  Greenfield noted the NJCH-funded program, Exploring Economic Justice:  New Jersey, the Nation, and the World, a series of lectures, film discussions, and educator seminars exploring the subject at the College of New Jersey.  And Stein noted: 

While Taylor cited wealth inequality as one of the issues (if not the issue) attending the major demographic trends he outlined, his statement that more than half of the children in the United States now live in poverty is shocking.  This fact begs political solutions. However, while our job at a state humanities council may not be to lift children out of poverty, I do think that state humanities councils are uniquely positioned to create safe, respectful spaces within which to discuss this fact. Our programs are free and take place in schools, libraries, prisons, hospitals, historical societies, and veterans’ centers and are organized on the ground by our partners who know their communities well.  The humanities help us think about our responsibilities and agency as citizens of the world.

As Greenfield said, “While we in the humanities won’t be the ones to solve our social problems, the humanities can inspire people to civic action.”  A fitting response to the questions Taylor’s presentation raised. 

For multiple explorations of data about American’s demographic transformation, go to the Pew Research Center’s website The Next America, at http://www.pewresearch.org/packages/the-next-america/.  See especially Paul Taylor’s interactive essay, “America’s Demographic Transition,” at  http://www.pewresearch.org/next-america/.

Linda Shopes is a contributing editor to Cross Ties.   Thanks go to Brett Bonfield, Briann Greenfield, Phoebe Stein, and Marilyn Whittington for responding to a series of questions following Paul Taylor’s lecture; and to Mary Rizzo, public historian in residence at Rutgers Camden, for making the introductions.  Thanks also to Laurie Zierer, executive director, and Donna Scheuerle, assistant to the executive director and development associate at the Pennsylvania Humanities Council, for facilitating attendance at Paul Taylor’s plenary address at the National Humanities Conference.