In a comment to my post yesterday about demographic shifts in the labor market, a weblog reader asked the essential question:
Won’t the aging Boomers come into the demographic that attends cultural events? Older, empty nesters with education and assets? Or are they too glued to their TV’s?
It’s a common question and a core issue for the future of the professional arts infrastructure, described more specifically in this 1997 report summary from the National Endowment for the Arts:
One expectation is that [baby boomers] will ”age into” arts participation as they embrace midlife obligations and perspectives. The alternative prediction is that the lower level of arts participation is a consequence of their early liberal experience and will persist over the coming decades, while post-boomer cohorts, raised in a more conservative atmosphere, will enjoy levels of arts participation comparable to pre-boomers.
Why does it matter? If age is really a primary predictor of arts attendance, we’re all in the gravy as the big population bubble moves into the ”arts attending” years. If factors other than age are the primary predictors of attendance (life experience, arts exposure as a child), we’re in trouble, because we’ll be drawing a decreasing percentage of the larger pool.
So what do we know about the answer? Not much until we can measure it in ”real time.” The NEA study offered a gloomy perspective on what we might expect:
- Among post-boomers, it was only for jazz that a few respondents account for the cohorts’ attendance. For all the rest of the art forms, a larger number of Generation X attendees attended fewer times on average. This means a large number of people were sampling widely.
- For baby boomers generally, a large number of attendees attend infrequently and this trend grew more pronounced from 1982 to 1997. That means that these boomers, like the post-boomers noted above, tend to sample widely without showing a strong commitment to any arts form.
- In marked contrast, the attendance figures for pre-boomers are accounted for largely by the frequent attendance of a relatively few people in these cohorts.
Unfortunately, only time will tell how worried we should be. But we might as well start worrying now.