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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.

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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