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A Lesson from the 19th Century on How To Be Successful in the 21st Century

Many organizations are suffering from declining membership and engagement among Millennials. Here are three things 21st century associations can learn from a 19th century invention about how to be successful and thrive.

Young man, young man, there's no need to feel down

Young man, young man, pick yourself off the ground

YMCA, it's fun to stay at the YMCA


Are you singing along yet? I cannot imagine one person who will read this blog that does not know the YMCA song by the Village People. It’s at every wedding reception and sporting event and is an indelible part of American culture. Much like the song, the YMCA organization has been a part of our culture for a very long time. It is one of the oldest organizations in our country and for years the Y was the place to go for young people to “build healthy minds, bodies and communities”.


In recent years the Y has struggled to find its place. Not connecting with younger generations led to declining membership and a high rate of employee turnover. However, it’s not just the YMCA.  Many membership associations find themselves in the same unenviable position. Behind closed doors some of these associations are beginning to question if they can survive in the 21st century. I wish I could get in on those meetings, so I might tell them not to give up hope. All is not lost!


The YMCA of the USA worked with XYZ University to reverse these negative trends and developed a plan to engage the modern millennial family at the Y. I have great hope that other membership associations may continue to be an integral and valued part of our culture if they just pay attention to what got them there in the first place.


For example, did you know that the YMCA invented BASKETBALL. Yes, basketball. The story goes that in the late 1800s a Y staff member named James Naismith was challenged by his supervisor to come up with a new activity that would engage people during the winter months. At the same time, Naismith was assigned to coach a class of young men that were completely uninterested in the routine exercises that were available to them. Propelled by the vision of his supervisor and an understanding of what wasn’t working from his first-hand knowledge of his own class, Naismith created an early version of what is now one of the most popular sports in the world.


Here are three things 21st century organizations may learn from this 19th century example about how to be successful:


  1. Be future-focused. Naismith’s supervisor had a vision and he shared it. He saw that the Y’s current offerings would not always engage people and he knew they would need something new for the future. Does your organization have a vision for the future or is it just bogged down by daily operations?


  1. Have humble leadership. Naismith was young and new to the Y staff when he was asked to come up with a new sport. Which means his supervisor was humble enough to recognize he did not have all the answers and invited a new perspective from someone younger. Is your leadership willing to do the same?


  1. Recognize needs and values. Naismith utilized his knowledge of the young men he had in his class to put together this new sport. He looked at what they enjoyed and what they did not. He paid attention to what they needed and valued and out of that came basketball. Does your organization know your young people? Are you paying attention to what they need and value? Are you allowing that to drive your efforts for the future?


Now back to our favorite wedding reception song. Have you really listened to the lyrics? I honestly had not until I was writing this blog. Whenever I hear this song, I’m usually too focused on my dance moves. In much the same way that organizations focus too much on bemoaning the fact that what they’re offering is not working instead of asking why it’s not working. Today I read the lyrics and really heard something that I believe offers great wisdom for us all.


No man does it all by himself

I said, young man, put your pride on the shelf

And just go there, to the YMCA

I'm sure they can help you today


No man (or woman or generation) can do it all by themselves. Put your pride on the shelf and be willing to learn from younger generations. Look to the story of basketball and the YMCA. I’m sure it will help you today.

XYZ University created a custom YMCA millennial member building toolkit available to independent Y’s throughout the US and globally. Reach out to us about obtaining this toolkit. Associations experiencing similar membership and engagement decline can contact us to discuss our research and strategic services to identify your opportunities for millennial membership growth.

Zs came of age in an era of disruption

In many ways, it’s symbolic that Generation Z is named after the last letter in the alphabet because their arrival marks the end of clearly defined roles, traditions, and experiences. After all, Gen Z is coming of age on the heels of what has been referred to as the most disruptive decade of the last century. America has become an increasingly changing and complex place.

For example:

  • ‍Zs were born into a “modern family era” in which highly involved dads help out at home, and the nuclear family model (two parents, married, with children) represent only 46% of American households.
  • ‍Zs are the first generation to be born into a world where everything physical, from people to places to pennies, has a digital equivalent.
  • From the time they were infants, Zs had access to mobile technology. As a result, their brains have been trained to absorb large amounts of information, and Zs are especially adept at shifting between skills and subject matter.
  • Zs tend to have crystal-clear memories of sitting up for the first time at six months old because they can easily and quickly reference the photos and videos their parents shared on social media or saved in the “cloud”. 

Members of this generation have undoubtedly been shaped by crisis and disruption. This generation will largely be responsible for confronting the aftermath of the Great Recession, high youth unemployment, the effects of climate change, terrorism, energy sustainability, and more. These dark events have undoubtedly made this generation more cautious and pragmatic, but they have also provided this generation with the inspiration to change the world – and their grit will likely allow them to do it.

Coming of age during disruption means that most Zs will be comfortable being the disruptors. While Millennials tend to be collaborative and innovative, this generation tends to be sincere, reflective, thick-skinned, and self-directed, and will likely approach work in much the same way.

Zs were raised to be competitive

In the era following World War II, Boomers (1946-1964) were born and eventually became the wealthiest, most prosperous generation in history. Raised to aspire for the American Dream, this very large generation moved into positions of power and influence, and served as the workforce majority for 34 years.

With the American Dream alive and well, Boomers had no reason to teach their children, mostly Millennials, about competition. Instead, they taught them to focus on academic achievement and to be team players because if everyone works hard, everyone can win.

Enter Generation X (1965-1981). In contrast Boomers, Xers came of age during a time when change and economic and political uncertainty began to take root. They have lived through four recessions, struggled with debt and economic decline most of their lives, and watched the best educated and accomplished generation of all time (Millennials) graduate during the Great Recession and become the most debt-ridden generation in history.

Gen Xers can be defined by their independence and anti-status quo approach to life, and they have taught their Gen Z children to be competitive, believing only the best can win. They have encouraged their children to be realists, finding something they are good at and aggressively pursuing it.

Xers have raised their Zs with an intense focus on competitiveness -- in academics, sports, and other activities. This approach to parenting has many implications, but one stands out in terms of business: Gen Z is likely to lead.

Millennials in the workplace created and aggressively advocated for collaborative work environments. In fact, their aversion to leadership has been so strong, some Millennials sought out companies that boasted boss-free or team-managed workplaces.

In contrast, Zs have been raised with an individualistic, realistic, and competitive nature. They have been taught the skills to successfully defy the norm. This means we’re going to see the pendulum shift away from collaborative workplaces towards a widespread demand for, and pursuit of, leadership development.

Zs are career-focused.

While Millennials have been criticized for their “delayed adulthood”, Gen Z is showing signs of “early adulthood”. Educators and parents often describe this generation as being more serious and contemplative about the world. Zs are thinking about their career paths and exposing themselves to career training at an earlier age than Millennials. It’s probable that some of this early onset of adulthood is caused by parents, who are pressuring their children to be competitive and successful and to avoid the debt that plagued both the Gen Xers and Millennials.

The numbers from our global research found 46% of Gen Z said they know what career to pursue and 51% have taken a class at school focused on their career interests. Forty percent joined an extracurricular program (team, club) based on their career interests.

Zs are seeking financial security. 

Zs have been shaped by the aftermath of the Great Recession. They watched Millennials become debt-ridden and are concerned about falling into the same trap. XYZ University’s survey results show 66% of Zs said financial stability is more important than doing work they enjoy, which is the exact opposite of Millennial survey results.  Also, 71% of survey-takers have a paying job.

Zs value leaders who are positive and trustworthy.

When presented a list of leadership traits, Zs ranked positive and trustworthy the highest. While Millennials and Gen Zs both value trust in a leader, Millennials usually cite collaboration and vision as most important. In other words, Millennials focus on the outcomes leaders inspire, whereas Zs are more likely to consider leaders’ attitudes and personalities. To Z, what leaders encourage others to do isn’t as valuable as how they make them feel.


Zs want to be challenged.

Both Millennials and Gen Zs place a very high value on feeling challenged and appreciated in the workplace. However, according to our survey results Millennials rank appreciation slightly higher than challenge, whereas Zs rank feeling challenged slightly higher than appreciation.

Time will tell how Zs go down in history, but we know this generation’s influence on history will be unlike any other.


Does your organization have what it takes to engage the next generation? Take this quiz to find out.


Sarah Sladek is CEO of XYZ University. Our generational intelligence can assist you with engaging and retaining young talent and members.

Jodie Swee

Together we’re better. This is Jodie Swee’s motto when it comes to generational differences. She has spent the last twenty years digging into the psychology of Millennials and is passionate about helping to bridge the gap with older generations. Jodie's background in sketch comedy sprinkles humor into the realities of our multi-generational workforce.

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