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In our opinion: RootsTech and the power of family history is a cure for our loneliness

Attendees walk through the booths RootsTech in Salt Lake City on Saturday, March 3, 2018.

Conservative commentator and social scientist David Brooks made waves in a recent Atlantic cover story critiquing the nuclear family and advocating for “forged families” — a close-knit group of kin, friends and neighbors who share love and responsibility for one another. In doing so, he unwittingly uncovered the reason some 30,000 people from around the world will descend on Salt Lake City this week: Humanity craves to be a part of a family story.

RootsTech, the annual genealogy and technology conference hosted in Utah’s capital, began its 10th year on Wednesday, and it simultaneously combines the appeal of discovering one’s ancestry with a remedy for the nuclear family’s shortcomings that Brooks would approve of.

Within a decade, RootsTech has gone from a gathering of 2,000 enthusiasts to a global conference with participants from at least 37 countries and 45 of the 50 states. An estimated 100,000 online viewers will also tune in to a selection of the 300 classes offered at the Salt Palace Convention Center.

Technology now combines with ancestral allure to create remarkable discoveries for those who haven’t traditionally been a part of the genealogical community. Teens in particular, perhaps because of their digital savvy, have found meaningful ways to engage the stories of their past, whereas only a few decades ago producing an accurate family tree required paying a consultant and calling grandma for an oral history.

At its heart, family history connects the present to what was and reminds each person that they are part of a larger story. That, in an age of loneliness, is a major step toward inclusion and belonging.

More than 60% of Americans say they are lonely, according to one recent report, and the effects spill over into families: The nuclear family as Brooks conceives it — a delicately balanced entity separated from external supports — is an unhelpful backstop when death, divorce or some other shock hits the unit. After such an event, family members can feel isolated or broken.

The psychology of genealogy, on the other hand, heals hearts and connects individuals. “As egocentric as we might feel,” says Eviatar Zerubavel, a professor of sociology and author of “Ancestors and Relatives,” “we all know it didn’t start with us. We are related to something that came before us, and what’s interesting is that this ‘something’ gives us a sense of identity.”

That identity is a deep motivator in a world of superficial labels. The Deseret News’ annual American Family Survey has for five years now captured the pulse of society’s families and uncovered life behind the headlines. In 2018, it found that most Americans identify first as a parent or spouse. Family relationships were more important identifiers than race, community, career or political party.

Engaging in family history work, then, promotes the very “forged family” Brooks calls for, as individuals learn they are forged together through shared experience, culture and blood. They can rely on the power of knowing their story and draw strength from those who have gone before. It truly is a cure for the ages.