DNA and the Next Generation
July 20, 2015
Genetic genealogy has become an essential tool for genealogists. With more than two million people tested to date, genealogists use DNA evidence every day to confirm research, study ancient roots, and break through brick walls.
In addition to breaking brick walls, genetic genealogy is also breaking social barriers. DNA testing engages both genealogists and non-genealogists of all ages, young and old. It shows us with scientific certainty just how closely related we all are, regardless of our age, location, history, ethnicity, or creed. Genealogists interested in engaging a younger generation can exploit this powerful aspect of DNA.
There are many reasons to encourage the next generation to investigate DNA testing. First and foremost, it is a great way to get younger test-takers interested in genealogy. With a bit of elbow grease, the results of a DNA test reveal the random tendrils through time that physically connect us to our ancestors and family history. Indeed, another reason to investigate DNA testing is simply because it is an essential source of evidence for genealogical research.
Younger test-takers often benefit more from the results of testing more than older generations. DNA is taught in biology class from a young age, and students have extensive experience with computers, so there is a minimal learning curve. Additionally, younger test-takers typically have more living ancestors (parents, grandparents, maybe even great-grandparents) and older relatives they can test in order to reveal even more information about their family history.
Educators who recognize the engaging power of genetic genealogy can use DNA testing in the classroom to explore topics in history, biology, and social studies. As early as 2007, for example, the National Genographic Project donated 750 kits to students in Chicago Public High Schools and 250 kits to sister schools in England. The students used the results of the Y-DNA and mtDNA testing to study human migratory patterns and to discover just how related they all are. “It’s like I’m related to everyone I know,” said one of the students. There is great untapped potential to use genetic genealogy testing to educate and engage students.
To understand the motivations and genealogical interests of younger test-takers, we created a short survey for test-takers who had taken their first DNA test prior to the age of thirty. The survey asked questions about why they took a genetic genealogy test, how they were introduced to DNA testing, what result of the testing was the most interesting, and how DNA testing affected their interest in genealogy, among other questions.
The results of the survey provide important insight to genealogists. For example, 56% of young test-takers took a genetic genealogy test to learn about their ethnicity and general ancestry, compared to 19% who took the test to answer a specific genealogical question, 11% to learn about their health, and 6% because of adoption or unknown paternity (the remaining 8% having some other reason for testing). In some ways, the results are not surprising. Ethnicity results have been the focal point of much of the recent advertising by genetic genealogy testing companies like 23andMe and AncestryDNA, likely the result of marketing research that recognized the public’s interest in those types of results, and almost half of respondents were introduced to genetic genealogy through an advertisement. However, of those who originally tested in order to learn more about their ethnicity, almost half reported being more interested in another aspect of their actual results. Although ethnicity brings test-takers in the door, genealogists can subsequently maintain interest by introducing tested individuals to other pertinent aspects of family history.
Another very important result was obtained in response to the question about whether the test-taker’s interest in genealogy increased, decreased, or stayed the same after they took a DNA test. Although 38% reported that it stayed the same, 62% reported that their interest in genealogy increased after DNA testing. And just as important, not a single respondent reported a decrease in interest. The results suggest that DNA testing offers genealogists an unparalleled opportunity to increase interest in genealogy among younger test-takers.
Whether in the classroom or with a grandchild, DNA testing offers genealogists a unique opportunity to engage younger test-takers. With genetic genealogy becoming increasingly ubiquitous, these opportunities will abound. Hopefully we will recognize and embrace this chance to engage the next generation.
Blaine Bettinger, Ph.D., J.D., is an intellectual property attorney by day and a genetic genealogist by night. He is the author of the long-running blog The Genetic Genealogist, and frequently gives presentations and webinars to educate others about the use of DNA to explore their ancestry.
Paul Woodbury is a recent graduate of Brigham Young University where he studied genetics and family history. Currently he works for Legacy Tree Genealogists as a client researcher with specialties in French, Spanish, Italian, Scandinavian, and genetic genealogy. He frequently presents on these and other research topics at family history conferences.