Please Mind the [Age] Gap

Posted by Sasha Bailyn on Tuesday, August 20th, 2013

If I were giving an official “state of the industry” address, it would go something like this:

  • Overseas markets are growing (including Russia, the UAE and pretty much all of Asia – exaggerating a little, but let’s face it, Asian countries are getting a lot of “play”)
  • The theme park greats in the U.S. continue to expand and improve with the help of brand IPs like Harry PotterIron Man and The Simpsons.
  • The market for entertainment design keeps diversifying in new and interesting ways: advertising is trying to be more and more like theme park entertainment, family entertainment destinations are popping up in unexpected placeshotels are copying movies, and the ballet is allowing fantasy and technology onto the stage. (What’s next? A giant campout in the woods based on horror movies? – Oh wait, that does exist.)
  • Lastly, and perhaps the point that’s least talked about: there is a huge age gap in the industry.

Nowhere is this age gap more apparent than at industry conferences and events, such as the Thea Awards, the Themed Entertainment Association’s “Oscars Awards.” At the Thea Summit, which is a daylong lineup of stellar speakers, the attendees were an odd mixture of students and industry veterans. The aspiring theme park designers, or “NextGen” Members, numbered a couple dozen and were instructed to get signatures from a list of attendees as an icebreaker exercise (a very good idea considering how polarized the room was). Most of the veterans seemed very receptive to the students and the NextGen evaluation of the experience was universally positive. But it’s going to take a lot more than receptiveness to bridge the themed entertainment industry’s age gap.

The reality is that most of yesterday’s experts and veterans are still the ones on top. Entertainment and themed design is a very small world, despite being spread all over the world, and there are a finite number of companies, firms, and big players that control the market. This makes for a very challenging and almost rigid dynamic for incoming talent: as a young person, your best way into the industry is to be somewhat of a commodity. In other words, you need to have a fine-tuned skill that makes you as close to an expert at something as possible, because portfolio is everything. The entrepreneurs and decision makers aren’t looking for their next replacements; they’re looking for people who fit smoothly and easily into the company’s production process. This phenomenon creates an armada of young, highly talented people who became specialists very early in life. But who are the future leaders of this industry? Will the skilled artists, engineers, and tech-savvy NextGens eventually become decision makers? Does technical talent translate easily to business expertise?

With the TEA providing exposure and networking opportunities to young talent, it’s now up to the veterans to negotiate the age gap. In an ideal world, this process would not just involve employment for the NextGens, but also mentorship. Mentoring entails the following mindset: “These are not young whippersnappers, but folks I can learn from too. They will make mistakes, but if I don’t let them do so, they will not learn. They don’t have to prove anything to me or be perfect at what they do – if they’re not good enough to be part of this team, they wouldn’t be here. I will open doors when appropriate and hope that these young folks give their all to my team and my company.”

Experienced industry leaders who are willing to be mentors will arm their companies for the future and set a solid precedent for how new hires are integrated into the industry. As a “next generation” industry participant, I can speak to the power of having a good mentor. Not only does it encourage me to do my best work, but it also gives me a model for how I can be helpful to the “future me’s” who come along.

Sasha Bailyn

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