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Change Or Die: Sarah Sladek's Interview With Vm Magazine In Holland

The following is an abridged version of an interview with XYZ University CEO Sarah Sladek that first appeared in VM magazine. Jeanne Hoogers, chief editor for VM magazine sat down with Sarah during her recent trip to the Netherlands where she “GenY-ed” the Dutch association professionals with an interactive presentation.

The following is an abridged version of an interview with XYZ University CEO Sarah Sladek that first appeared in VM magazine. Jeanne Hoogers, chief editor for VM magazine sat down with Sarah during her recent trip to the Netherlands where she “GenY-ed” the Dutch association professionals with an interactive presentation.

You warn associations to change or die. What kind of associations are going to die?

Sarah Sladek: The ones that have members with an average age of 58. It does not matter if this is an association specifically for senior citizens. You have to change because the future senior citizens expect something else. For every member that’s 60 (Baby Boomer) you have to have one who is 40 (Gen X-er) and you must know how to get one who is 20 (Gen Y). You have to offer something that is unique,–nobody else can offer that too, it is for members only, it solves an important problem for them and it offers a positive experience of being a member of the association.

The same is true for trade-associations. Members may be companies and organizations, but they really are people, and too often these people are only Baby Boomers.

Often advocacy is an important part of what the association does. Gen Y grew up with  Free Willy, so they know that too. How is advocacy different for Millennials?

Sarah Sladek: True, but Millennials do not want to pay for advocacy all the time. And they have a different view on advocacy. You have to reinvent your lobbying strategies; make it more grassroots and make the results more visible. Show Gen Y how it benefits them.

What is your advice for Gen Y?

Sarah Sladek: Try to learn from the Baby Boomers – who are now in the top of the association –  as much as you can and as fast as you can. Try to be patient, it takes time to get experienced. Use your education and knowledge; this goes for young association members as well as young association professionals. As we experienced during the workshops in Holland, Gen Y brings with them their typical opinions and solutions; but they cannot change the association on their own. It’s important to learn to work together.

So you have to have a mix of generations working together. How do you do that?

Sarah Sladek: Yes, you have to mix. It can seem to be a good idea to let the younger ones have their own separate committees or boards, but what happens when someone wants to step over to the ‘adults’ side?  You have to find a way to make the generations work together on your boards and staff. If you don’t do that, the young generations will start an alternative association of their own. In my view you can bring in diversity by taking the generation shift seriously. Associations do differ enormously on this. Some still have to get used to having a woman on the board. But for Gen Y, diversity is normal. There are a lot of good practices in mixing the generations.

In the end it all boils down to change or die. If you do not have the generations, you cannot mix them. Start finding out what your association has to offer to Gen Y engaged and what they have to offer the association.

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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