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Advocacy And Your Association: A Lost Cause?

With all the recent posts about associations and the struggle with advocacy, you might be wondering if it’s a lost cause for your association. Associations expend a lot of time, energy and resources on advocacy efforts. There’s no reason to keep taking punches if the fight is over–don’t make the ref call it. Maybe it isn’t over, but if you want to stay in the fight, you’ll need a new strategy.

This is the final entry in a series of blog posts around the topic of “Advocacy and Associations” that XYZ University published during the months of November/December.

With all the recent posts about associations and the struggle with advocacy, you might be wondering if it’s a lost cause for your association.

Associations expend a lot of time, energy and resources on advocacy efforts. There’s no reason to keep taking punches if the fight is over–don’t make the ref call it. Maybe it isn’t over, but if you want to stay in the fight, you’ll need a new strategy.

Ignoring the signs

Based on our survey results, it seems that associations are not being realistic about where things are headed. Although most are concerned about the lack of participation by members under 40, most also believe that they will be sustaining or growing advocacy efforts in the next 5-10 years. If that is to happen, we need a new approach. To assume members will age and all of a sudden value something they currently see as a waste of time is not a realistic approach to the future of advocacy.

Is democracy a joke?

Your younger members don’t even take advocacy seriously.

A poll by the Lowy Institute in June 2012 stated that 39% of Australians aged 18 to 29 said democracy is better than other forms of government, but nearly a quarter (23%) believed that “for someone like me, it doesn’t matter what kind of government we have.” Lowy Institute executive director Michael Wesley stated that he was surprised by “how lightly we take our democracy.”

It might not be the information we were hoping for, but the fact of the matter is that Gen X and Gen Y are sticking together on these fronts—across the globe—and associations need to take note if they want to make a difference and sustain their advocacy efforts.

Advocacy requires participation to succeed

If associations are going to use advocacy as a major member benefit, they need to find a way to make it valuable to the younger generations; and they haven’t done that yet. According to the American Psychological Association, the last 15 years shows a significant decline among young Americans in interest and participation in politics.

Associations are failing to involve everyone in advocacy efforts; hence they are not able to be as effective at it as they could be if everyone were involved. The democratic process requires participation. If associations aren’t getting that, then their efforts may be better used elsewhere.

What’s next?

We are concerned for your association. We are concerned that younger members—the future of this country—are not getting involved. If Generation X and Y are not interested in politics, what does this mean for the future of democracy, politics, business—for your association?

Advocacy does not need to be a lost cause for your association. But, you need to commit to making a change now. Embrace a new way of thinking, of doing.

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.

Sarah Sladek

Concerned about declining engagement in our nation’s membership associations, non-profits, and workplaces, Sarah Sladek founded XYZ University, the nation’s first and only generations-focused training and engagement strategy company, in 2002.

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