Last week, we explored technology as the first of three variables I've been watching to cause me to predict more than half of associations will be dead or dying by 2030.
Today we are going to look at the second variable: The Magic Bullet Called Younger Members.
Over 20 years ago, I started consulting in the association world. I was one of the younger consultants. Most were retired CEOs.
One of the things that shocked me as a younger consultant in the mid-90s was the animosity often felt towards Generation X.
Association leaders (and the media) complained Gen Xers were spoiled. Felt entitled. Wanted to bring their dogs to work - and not wear a formal suit!
Putnam's Bowling Alone essay and later book (2000) on the decline of social capital was gospel. The self-centered Gen Xers would not be joining associations.
The good news the next generation, Gen Y, was very big and on the way.
The Millennials supposedly loved joining groups and hanging with grandparents. The children were often affectionately called Echo Boomers. Associations just had to wait several years for them to arrive.
As Millennials came of age, however, something mystifying happened...
They didn't rush in large groups to join associations as promised.
What the heck?
Millennials were called selfish trophy kids. Raised by helicopter parents and teachers who gave the Millennials trophies for breathing.
A new story was created by the experts to justify the missing younger members…
They proclaimed younger people are too busy getting their careers going and starting families. They will not be joining until their 40s when they were more settled.
The story of delayed joining was verified by careful research.
Circulated around the association world Many gave a great sign of relief.
(And a bit of frustration that once again they had to wait for those younger members to join!)
Fast forward to today...
Some associations wait with baited breath for Generation Z!
The biggest generation ever. Equal to 25% of the population in the United States. Bigger than the Baby Boomers.
AND they are naturals for joining associations - or so the story goes.
The oldest are turning 21 this year.
Experts are crowing! In just a few years, it should be party time for associations due to the practically guaranteed growth of younger members!
This last prediction story takes into no account other things going on in the world right now.
Technological disruptions will also majorly impact your association growth. You can't look at just one variable and declare victory. It's like having your head in the sand.
It makes your association vulnerable.
So what really happened with younger members joining associations?
Young professional groups have grown with ease for years across the country.
Some associations noticed this phenomenon. Over the last 20 years I’ve been working with associations, I’ve seen several decide to create a young professional, low-cost, membership.
Sounds brilliant on the front end.
Members invest in the future. Younger members sign up. Membership numbers grow! Boards are happy.
And for a while, it feels really good.
- The YPs are special.
- They barely pay for anything thanks to the generosity of other members.
- Their meetings are creative and fun experiences.
- Their groups move at a much faster pace than the regular association – and that’s okay because they ARE the young professionals.
When promoted properly, the YP groups tend to do really well.
What's the problem? Birthdays.
Challenges flare when YPs hit the kick-out age.
After a few years of generosity and training, the YPs were expected to happily join the traditional side of the association.
Grateful for the easy and fun on-boarding into the association, with their now larger salaries, they would be delighted to pay full dues.
After all, it is a natural and logical progression for YPs to want to become active members of the traditional association – right?
Unfortunately, that has not been the experience of most.
The aging out YPs often push back.
- They don't want to leave their YP friends because of an arbitrary number.
- It doesn't make sense to them.
- They loved the group they are part of - why force a change?
Some associations hold the line on age requirements - and watch the older YPs fade away.
Other associations bump up the age-out number for subsidized YP memberships - which simply delays the challenge at hand.
(More than one association has offered YP membership to members in their 40s to keep the happily subsidized members on their books.)
After all that investment, why don't the YPs rush to be active in the traditional association?
- Traditional association meetings are often boring.
- Leaders don't appreciate younger members asking, “Why?”
- Leaders don't like younger members who refuse to give 110%.
- YP graduates are treated as if they have no association experience.
- "How we've always done things" rules supreme.
In other words, the traditional volunteer leaders don't really like or want the YPs involved.
The same YPs who had a brilliant, rewarding, financially supported time as association members.
The same YPs who, upon a certain birthday, are expected to suck it up, accept a lower ROI from being involved - AND pay multiple times the dues they paid as YPs.
Recognizing a bad deal, most YPs vote with their feet.
What if some version of this YP treatment has been going on for the last few decades?
What if volunteer leaders haven’t really wanted younger members to get involved as contributing active members for a long time?
Association experts and research like that showcased in Bowling Alone simply created stories to justify and explain why YPs weren't active members.
It was much easier for association leaders to buy stories of external, unbeatable influence - rather than take ownership of results - that what THEY offered the repelled potential younger members!
Thanks to the stories, associations and their boards didn't have to embrace massive change, stay that current - or even try to bring in younger members happily into the traditional experience.
They could feel good about giving away low-cost memberships, having a few token seats on boards - or an elite program for just a few of the chosen younger members.
No matter what they did, YPs were not going to join their association in numbers proportional to the population at large.
The belief in the experts’ stories created an institutional bias worshiped as truth.
And so current members continued to age – and so did the average age of association members.
Volunteer leaders who continue to serve (especially in the local space) tend to be stretched very thin and committed to doing things how they've always done it.
They talk about wanting younger members - but what they really want is people who will join the association and accept everything AS IS.
It’s time to change the story about potential younger members – and take true ownership of results.
(Unless it is your association strategy to serve only aging members of your association – then you are fine.)
Forget the old stories about why younger members aren’t joining.
Make your story that younger people love to join your association – you just have to find the right combination to be a member magnet.
- What if younger members enjoy being plugged into a dynamic organization that welcomes them?
- That embraces their younger point of view?
- That allows and encourages them to make a meaningful impact on the mission?
- That realizes they have more enthusiasm than experience – and it’s still a good thing?
- That creates a strong support and training program to help members mature in their careers and life?
What would your association look like if all of the above younger member desires were incorporated into your active member experience?
You have the power to change the story of your association!
Attracting younger members is very possible.
Some associations have a great generational mix of active members.
They believe people want to be involved. Tend to be more innovative. Celebrate trying new ideas. Welcome people from across the potential field of members - you see the diversity in their leadership and actions.
These are the associations that will benefit from the population boom that is coming of age.
Unfortunately, if the commitment to stories of "no interest" continues to dominate your culture, potential younger members will take a pass - and your association heads more strongly towards being part of the 50% associations dead or dying by 2030.
And there's more...
Next week we'll throw the third variable into the mix. It's about a huge upset of power that has already happened - and hasn't been noticed by many yet.
You'll see why practically every association needs to get more pro-active about their future.
Stay tuned until next week!
If you need help getting beyond your current stories, a Future Bending Adventure may be perfect for your association.
Yours in Finding the Future That Rocks!
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