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Generation X

Getting To Gen X: Associations Misled By Participation Research

Back in 2006, the William E. Smith Institute for Association Research released a report titled Generations and the Future of Association Participation. The report projected that the number of association members in the United States was expected to rise from 51 million in 2005 to about 55 million in 2015, with the percentage of all workers belonging to associations expected to climb from 28.3 percent to 28.9 percent in that interval.

Back in 2006, the William E. Smith Institute for Association Research released a report titled Generations and the Future of Association Participation. The report projected that the number of association members in the United States was expected to rise from 51 million in 2005 to about 55 million in 2015, with the percentage of all workers belonging to associations expected to climb from 28.3 percent to 28.9 percent in that interval.

The report touted that Generation X would be a boon for associations, offering up significant opportunity for growth because research indicated they were more likely than Boomers to join professional associations.

The headline on that story was very misleading. It offered false hope to those association executives who didn’t read the report from top to bottom. Even just a couple months ago I spoke with an association executive who was convinced that the association was safe from future membership decline (even though they were already experiencing decline) because this report revealed that Generation X would certainly save them.

Whoa! Put down the umbrella drink and get out of your lawn chair. If you think Generation X will save any and every association, you are sadly mistaken.

The widely held notion that associations must struggle to attract younger members stems, in part, from the book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, by Robert Putnam. The author, citing declining participation in civic and nonprofit organizations, concludes that Americans are less likely to join volunteer organizations for several reasons, among them increased work demands on families, including more people changing locations to find jobs.

Then, the author of Generations and the Future of Association Participation, discovered that professional and trade associations were having some success attracting Generation X members. The report stated that these associations were observing growth by 0.5 percent annually while all other nonprofits (unions, charitable, fraternal, neighborhood, and philanthropic) were declining 0.8 percent annually.

Personally, I don’t think this is adequate reason to kick up our heels and celebrate. We’re talking about very minimal progress here — a .5 percent increase isn’t substantial. This is the fine print that most association executives overlooked. The report boldly proclaimed that Generation X joined associations at higher rates than Boomers and, taking great comfort in that proclamation, that’s where most association executives stopped reading.

But there’s more fine print.

  • For starters, the report focuses on Generation X being apt to join associations, but it says nothing about retention. At least 95% of the associations I work with are the most concerned about the revolving door–they can get younger professionals to join, but they can’t keep them. The loss rate and inactivity among young members is quite high. To say that Xers are joiners is not the equivalent of saying they are loyal or active members.
  • Second, the conclusion that Generation X will join does not apply to every association equally. If you represent manufacturing or government in the United States, the data on joining will not be so helpful—because you’re in an industry in serious decline! Industries and professions that are predicted to be leading the economy in the coming years (and adding jobs, thus potential members) are the ones to watch. Therefore, the industries that appeal most to Generation X, like technology and marketing, will experience growth and the associations representing those industries will also experience growth. For the other industries and associations out there–not so much.
  • Third, the report note that associations will experience growth in Generation X membership if–and only if–they are responsive to the needs and interests of Generation X. Xers want professional development opportunities, tangible and measurable member benefits, and leadership roles. The report notes, although not prominently, that there’s a “huge difference” between Boomers and Xers in that Xers will pay dues only if they are getting a return on their investment. This is why Xers are drawn to professional and trade associations in contrast to civic groups. Professional associations give them the information and career-building opportunities they seek.
  • Fourth, the report misleads readers when it states there are “slightly fewer” Xers than Boomers in the workforce. There are 78 million Baby Boomers (1946-1964) in the U.S., and only 48 million Xers (1965-1981). I am thoroughly confused as to how the report can refer to the Xer generation as being only slightly smaller than the Boomer generation. I have researched generations since 2001 and this is the first time I’ve seen the size of the Xer and Boomer workforces referred to as being only slightly different from one another. It just doesn’t add up.

All of this critical information was lost in translation, which is why some associations still rely on the report’s proclamation that Xers are indeed joiners and there’s no reason to fret about the future.

I agree that Xers offer tremendous potential for associations. I agree that associations need to be proactive and develop strategies for increasing Generation X membership, and Gen Y membership for that matter.

But I disagree with this report’s broad, and misleading, proclamation that Generation X is more likely to join associations than Baby Boomers.

Association executives, I beg of you to not rely on this proclamation and use it as a crutch! Read the fine print. Do the research and you will see for yourself this report isn’t proof that your future is safe.

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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