Crisis in CRM archaeology is actually the changing of a generation, Part 2

This is the second post in a 3-part series featuring three articles written by Lawrence E. Moore in the SAA Archaeological Record. His focus is the future decline of CRM archaeology and how that will affect the future of our industry.

The articles are available for free on the Society for American Archaeology website:

Moore, Lawrence E.

2005    A Forecast for American Archaeology. SAA Archaeological Record 5(4):13–17.

2006a  CRM: Beyond its Peak. SAA Archaeological Record 6(1):30–33.

2006b  Going Public: Customization and American Archaeology. SAA Archaeological Record 6(3):16–19.

I may sound antagonistic against Mr. Moore’s views in these articles, but I actually respect him for writing them and would love to talk with him about this topic some day.

Lawrence Moore paints a pretty negative vision of the future of CRM in his article “CRM: Beyond its Peak.” The basic theme of this article is, “as soon as the Baby Boomers retire, CRM archaeology will be done.” As he hinted at in his 2005 SAA Archaeological Record article, which I discussed in Part I, the retirement of the Baby Boomers will create a drop in the United States economy that will trigger a decrease in tax revenue, increased taxation, and an economic depression. These strains are predicted to destroy CRM archaeology.

Given the economy of the last few years, it would seem like Mr. Moore is correct. Our economy did collapse. Baby Boomers are retiring. There are fewer jobs in archaeology than before the collapse (see Doug Rocks-McQueen’s summary of the decreased archaeology job market in the UK). Government agencies are streamlining the cultural resources evaluation process, which may result in fewer projects (check out Chris Webster’s summary of the streamlining of the NHPA and NEPA. This is also one of the topics on the CRM Archaeology Podcast with Tom King).

Before I throw in the towel and concede the death of CRM, I’d like to address several items in “CRM: Beyond its Peak” that may have been overlooked:

Market predictability based on demographics

“Like all industries, CRM is working its way through a predictable industry cycle.” (Moore 2006:30).

One key to Moore’s analysis is the idea that CRM is working its way through a predictable path from birth in the 1960s to a peak that leveled out in the 1990s. According to Moore, after the 1990s, CRM archaeology entered a decline that will continue until its final bottoming out. Moore points out that the SAA isn’t growing as fast as it used to, although it reached an all time membership high in 2007; the hot theoretical debates of the 1980s and 1990s have simmered down from their intellectual climax; and fieldwork is declining across the country.

First, not all industries or businesses follow predictable, linear, evolutionary paths. Think about Apple, Inc. I also know several CRM firms that did not follow that model (NWAA, Inc., Paleowest, Inc., SWCA, WestLand Resources, Inc., and I’m sure there are others). In addition to using linear thinking to speculate about a constantly evolving industry, there are several problems with these telling “signs” that CRM is hastening towards an inevitable end. I can think of a few reasons why these conditions do not necessarily mean the end of CRM:

1)         I’ve only been a SAA member when necessary– I hope I don’t shoot myself in the foot, but, as a historical archaeologist, I think an SAA membership is almost entirely a waste of money. Maybe I’m just channeling my old grad school advisor Mark Warner, who gave his American Antiquity away. Like Warner, I have the utmost respect for the SAA thousands of members, many of whom are my best friends and mentors. Archaeology needs to remain diverse and maintaining a high level of interest in all areas of prehistory in the Americas is definitely important. The SAA addresses this niche.

Nevertheless, there is rarely an article that interests me in American Antiquity. Few of the topics at their annual conferences pique my interest either. I can go to my local university library, co-worker’s office, or JSTOR if I ever want/have to read an article. Basically, I don’t need the SAA. I know dozens of prehistoric archaeologists that feel the same way about being a member of the SHA.

As a CRM archaeologist, I think membership in local archaeological associations and having a good library of CRM gray literature is more important than spending over $100 each year on an SAA membership.

Nevertheless, I have been a SAA member before. I joined the SAA in 2004 and 2008, primarily to go to the conferences. In 2004, I was looking for a job after finishing grad school. I didn’t find one at the Salt Lake City conference. I joined again in 2008 when I lived in Seattle so I could give a presentation for my company. My boss said she wanted all of us to present in Vancouver and add to the company’s exposure. I went to the conference and, aside from my own symposium, could barely scrape together the enthusiasm to stay at the venue for the mandatory 16-hours so I could get paid to be there. (FYI: I’ve been asked to participate in a blogging and archaeology session at the 2014 SAA in Austin, so it looks like I’ll be a member again. I hope you all see me there and make me eat my words. Hope I don’t spend all day eating barbeque at Stubbs).

Like Warner notes in his 2009 SAA Archaeological Record article (Why I gave Away My American Antiquity: Some Thoughts on the Relationship between Historical Archaeologists and American Antiquity, 9[2]:6–7), fewer historical archaeologists are reading and citing American Antiquity. While I have no statistics to back this up, it may be related to the fact that archaeology is fracturing into different groups each with their own society and publications. Archaeologists may be joining these different, newer associations and dropping their SAA memberships. Also, as Warner states, the SAA is not catering to one of its largest constituencies– historical archaeologists– thus, they are losing members.

Basically, SAA membership may not be the best indicator of CRM archaeology’s decline in the United States. This is due to a number of unrelated variables, including the rise of a number of different archaeological associations that cater to individual group needs and the lack of an adequate response from the SAA.

2)         Theory is underutilized in CRM-– A 2007 article in the SAA Archaeological record based on a survey with CRM company leaders concluded that knowledge of archaeological theory was the least necessary thing for new CRMers looking to enter the field (McAndrews 2007:39–42, 60). This was coming from the PIs of America’s CRM companies.

Clearly, the intellectual debates didn’t subside. They were undernourished by the CRM companies that employ about 80 percent of American archaeologists. It appears like theory in general is not valued by today’s CRM bosses.

Also, postmodernism was not the kind of theoretical regime that was going to be replaced with a cohesive theoretical paradigmatic successor. Postmodernism shattered the processual archaeology that preceded it and the archaeology of to day has to operate in a world where theory has been atomized. As a result, we have mélanges of localized theoretical constructs that we use to make sense of the archaeological sites of a given region. And we try to insert these constructs into the mandatory large-scale culture histories that many state and federal agencies require, which were largely made 30–40 years ago based on processual archaeological frameworks.

3)         Declining economy=declining fieldwork– This seems to go without saying. Since 2008, the bottom dropped out of CRM fieldwork and we all struggled to survive. However, I have found that in certain locations (such as downtown Tucson, Arizona) there has been a continued increase in the number of CRM projects was conducted as during the boom years. CRM archaeology continued to grow in these locations; although, these projects were smaller and probably had smaller budgets. But it is important to note that the regulatory context of a given area has a great deal of influence on the quantity of CRM fieldwork opportunities. Places with robust local, state, and federal preservation laws (like Tucson) will continue to mandate CRM work for most projects.

I also believe that there will be an increase in CRM work (particularly for architectural historians and historical archaeologists) as we start building more subdivisions and repurposing the inner suburbs of cities into condos and apartments. CRM work should increase in the near future.

‘Cause we all know that Baby Boomers control the world

As this generation [Baby Boomers] controls American archaeology, the retirement of the senior management level will break the social networks that keep the industry functional, and there will be fewer people in important positions to advocate for CRM.” (Moore 2006:33).

The demise of CRM archaeology its self is also attributed by Moore to the retirement of Baby Boomers. As this huge demographic of Americans drops out of the workforce, Moore states there will be a 48 percent drop in the number of archaeologists, a problem that will, “compound to reduce staffing by nearly 75 percent during the years 2009 to 2016” (Moore 2006a:33). This will be additionally catastrophic because the retirement of these senior-level management archaeologists will break the social networks that keep the industry functional and there will be fewer people in important positions to advocate for archaeology. Basically, the Boomers will bring down the house of cards we all live in.

Moore couldn’t be more wrong. There are several things wrong with this prediction:

1)         Underestimating the skills and resolve of Generation X and the Millennials– Moore underestimates the resolve and character of Gen X and Millennials. Many of us Gen-Xers have more than a decade of steady CRM experience under our belts AND graduate degrees AND/OR MBAs AND extensive experience with the technology that will help this industry move forward in the next decade, which is more than the Boomers had when they started the companies of today. Many companies are training up the next generation right now. Because of the Boomers, we are all overachievers and have more than what it takes.

The next generation will have no problem keeping the CRM industry afloat and filling those empty Boomer shoes. Go ahead and retire. Watch us take the wheel.

2)         The younger generation is better networked and constantly networking– Networking is the core of what it means to be a young American. We have contacts with people we didn’t even like in elementary school and are always plugged in. What makes you think we aren’t creating those business-related “social networks” right now? The existing social connections will be replaced with even more robust, dynamic, international connections that the Boomers couldn’t even dream of.

3)         What about upstart firms?– Boomers, remember when you started your CRM companies so you could do things your own way and do the kind of research you always wanted? What makes you think you guys are the only ones that think that way? There are two whole generations that can’t wait to use the internet, tablet computers, and social media to turn this whole industry upside down.

4)         What about consolidation of firms into larger corporations?– One of the biggest developments overlooked by Moore is the consolidation of CRM into larger environmental planning and engineering corporations. According to the Heritage Business Journal (HBJ), CRM-only firms are losing market share to multi-service environmental consulting companies. The HBJ reports that a large percentage of ACRA members, who are largely CRM-only companies, reported no growth or a loss of revenue in 2011 while the overall environmental consulting industry, which includes CRM, experienced a 5 percent growth. This suggests the multi-service companies absorbed this growth at the expense of the CRM-only companies. In my own experience, the multi-service companies in southern Arizona have weathered the economic downturn better than CRM-only companies.

Moore doesn’t account for the consolidation of CRM archaeology into larger, multi-service companies. This will have a significant effect as these companies tend to retain well-trained, educated staff and hire a large number of temporary workers. This consolation will hit archeological technicians particularly hard, but will provide stable jobs for archaeologists with graduate degrees and experience.

5)         We are building our cities inward– Home values in auto-centric, ring suburbs across the country are lower the ever before and they are not regaining their pre-recession value. This has been noticed in a number of commentaries including the NY Times op-Ed article “Death of the Fringe Suburb”, this article by Allison Morris, and a number of real estate analysts. Basically, a large number of Boomers and Gen-Xers want to live closer to the city center and are sick of wasting their lives driving to the middle of nowhere and back again every day for work. Home values are increasing in the inner suburbs– the ones built in the first half of the twentieth century, AKA streetcar suburbs.

This infill should create a large number of CRM jobs because these huge areas are historical. Architectural historians and historical archaeologists will be more valuable in the near future.

6)         What about international CRM?– Moore doesn’t even address U.S. firms conducting CRM in other countries. I feel like that is the next level for the CRM industry, especially since many of our services are being co-opted by larger firms that do business overseas.

7)         Then, again, there’s always straight compliance– While Section 106 and the NHPA may be in jeopardy, the NHPA, which articulates with the NHPA, is not going anywhere in today’s “Save the Earth” society. Environmental tragedies still happen, but the NEPA has done much to curb abuses in the last 40 years. The American public sees the value of this regulation. The environmental consulting industry has been growing strongly around the world, which means CRM will remain a moneymaker. As long as Americans play lip service to caring about the environment, cultural resources compliance will continue to exist.

Environmental companies will need archaeologists to do their compliance efforts. The field may mature, like medicine and physics, to the point where we all need a PhD to do archaeology, but that seems like a natural progression in the sciences. Archaeology, actually, has done a remarkable job of fending off this trend.

Again, a respect Moore for attempting to make a sober assessment of the future of CRM archaeology, but I disagree with the core tenets of “CRM: Beyond its Peak” more than Moore’s other three articles. I believe there may be a leveling off in the number of archaeologists in the U.S. and there may be a rapid increase in the degree requirement, but I think the industry will remain profitable past the peak predicted by Moore. I also think we CRM archaeologists have several untapped income streams that will be more important in the future, specifically international CRM and public archaeology.

Please tell me what you think about the future of CRM. I would love to have comments on this topic.

If you have any questions or comments, write below or send me an email.

Small Archaeology Project Management is now on the Kindle Store. Over 300 copies were sold in the first month! Click Here and see what the buzz is all about

Learn how my résumé-writing knowledge helped four of my fellow archaeologists land cultural resources jobs in a single week!

Join the Succinct Research email list and receive additional information on the CRM and heritage conservation field.