One of the perennial topics at professional conferences and when I meet colleagues are the challenges of working at an historic site, historic house museum, or history museum. They often center around ever-decreasing resources, board members who aren’t raising money, and the constant attention to financial and personnel management. Nothing new about that, except you’ll notice some additional topics depending on the person’s age.
Generation X (those born 1965 to 1980) frequently mentions that career advancement is stagnant. They’ve been blocked by the previous generation, who were the first major generation of trained museum professionals and have held senior positions at museums and historic sites for twenty years or more. These Baby Boomers will be retiring en masse soon to open up many opportunities, but Gen X may be caught in the “can’t be hired as a director because you haven’t been a director” whirlpool. Other Gen Xers have watched the stress that hits executive directors and have decided to pursue other paths for their careers (I’ve seen several directors develop serious health problems as a result of their jobs–is it really worth it?).
Generation Y (born 1981 to 2000) is currently in college and graduate school, and their biggest concern is getting a job, any job, in the museum or preservation field. They’re pursuing a career seriously and paying for lots of tuition to earn that master’s degree to give them a competitive advantage. Museum studies programs are responding by providing classes in business and technology and requiring several internships to get plenty of experience on resumes. And yet landing a job is difficult. In this economy and a limited job market, hundreds of applications flow in for a single entry level position. And if you can’t land a job in the field you’ve chosen, what do you do with a museum studies, art history, history, or preservation degree?
In “The Four-Year Career,” Anya Kamenetz at Fast Company describes how some Gen Yer’s are navigating this rough terrain by developing personal goals and then treating jobs as learning experiences towards personal fulfillment. Jobs change frequently and as needed, and there’s a recognition that you shouldn’t stay at one place too long. Loyalty is temporary and short-lived, both by the employee and the employer. That follows national trends, which show that the median tenure in a job today is about four years (a significant drop from the 1970s) and that most people have eleven different jobs in their lifetime. She associates shorter job tenure with a:
new era of insecurity, volatility, and risk. It’s part of the same employment picture as the increase in part-time, freelance, and contract work; mass layoffs and buyouts; and “creative destruction” within industries. All these changes put more pressure on the individual–to provide our own health care, bridge gaps in income with savings, manage our own retirement planning, and invest in our own education to keep skills marketable and up to date.
Other Gen Yer’s are simply taking a risk and pursuing new ventures outside the field. Indeed, some have described this as the “most entrepreneurial generation in history,” much of it due to the Internet and online technologies, although some have serious doubts this will be as successful as anticipated.
We’re definitely witnessing a major change in the way employment operates in this country. The expectation that you’ll land a job for a lifetime or find one that perfectly meets your narrow expertise will be rare. More common will be shorter project-oriented employment based on skills and experience, with a heavy reliance on personal references (“I need an online collections catalog and only have $10,000–is there anyone you can recommend?”). Work may be more frequently found in RFPs than in job announcements. This shift requires a different way of thinking and a new set of survival skills, so if you find yourself exploring these ideas either as an employee or employer, I’ve found the books by Cliff Hakim and William Bridges to be very helpful (fifteen years ago, Hakim said “we are all self-employed” and Bridges talked about a “workplace without jobs”). If you have any advice to share on careers in museums and historic sites, you’re welcome to share them in the comments below.
P. S. Leslie Kesler thoughtfully discusses what she learned from recent lay off from her job as an historian and curator at a local history museum on Linda Norris’ blog The Uncatalogued Museum.