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Guest Posts

Leverage Your Assets: Stem The Tide Of Declining Membership

The staff and volunteer leadership of today’s professional associations are faced with two related realities. One, Generation Y is on the cusp of taking over from the Boomers as the most significant cohort in the economy, making them the future of membership. And, two, there has been a slow and steady decline in the membership of many professional associations, with this decline disproportionately concentrated in professionals in the first 10 years of their career.


The staff and volunteer leadership of today’s professional associations are faced with two related realities. One, Generation Y is on the cusp of taking over from the Boomers as the most significant cohort in the economy, making them the future of membership. And, two, there has been a slow and steady decline in the membership of many professional associations, with this decline disproportionately concentrated in professionals in the first 10 years of their career.

As early as 1996, Canadian Economist David Foot warned of the coming rise of (the yet to be moniker’ed) Generation Y in Boom Bust & Echo: How to Profit from the Coming Demographic Shift. What the association industry is now grappling with was an unforeseen rise in technology, job insecurity and shifting values, that has led to that same Echo generation’s failure to take out memberships on mass.

Side Note: As Generation Y and the Echo Generation are both defined as those born in and around 1980 or thereafter (although in defining Generation Y there is no definitive text) I intend to use these terms interchangeably, as I am also apt to do in conversation.


With the constrained resources of many of today’s professional associations, intensified by declining memberships and the resulting decline in that revenue stream, no association can afford to ignore its greatest resources. In the case of the generational shift in memberships, professional associations must leverage their own staff to arrive at and implement a strategy to deal with the coming tide.

As with any issue involving generational issues, and a healthy dose of intergenerational tension, every solution must start with respect. In 1967 Aretha Franklin sung to a world divided by sexism and racism, R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me; in 2013 this same idea can be applied to addressing issues that are at times tinged with ageism. Gen Y Association staff understand what it “means to me” or rather what it “means to them” and how to demonstrate this respect.

A combination of the following strategies should be employed:

  1. Changes to internal processes to empower younger employees to innovate and meet the needs of others in their age cohort. While social media is increasingly relevant to all generations, it remains especially important as a means to recruit, engage and retain members in their first 10 years of their careers. Your organization should have clear policies in place to both empower and set boundaries for online engagement. Similar policies and procedures should also be considered, organizations that are unsure of what is needed should consult their own staff about changes that would assist them in reaching this key demographic.
  2. Succession planning for boards and committees where demographics are given due consideration. Allowing young people the opportunity to contribute to an organization in a meaningful way through leadership will allow your professional association to be more appealing, Generation Y isn’t looking for recognition but they are looking for meaningful ways to flesh out the ol’ resume and network. Staff in the same age cohort should be engaged in determining selection criteria to ensure that a short resume isn’t a handicap while still requiring the right mix of experience and enthusiasm to ensure that the organization’s needs are met.
  3. Peer-to-peer guidance, helping your staff to help volunteers in their same generation. Many young volunteers feel (rightly or wrongly) that they are not respected because of their age. While these same volunteers often need guidance to understand their responsibilities, particularly the fiduciary responsibilities associated with being a board member. Generation Y staff should be provided with the tools, resources and knowledge to provide empathetic support to your volunteers.
  4. Leverage your assets. This list could go on forever, each professional association is unique, and with those quirks come unique problems and equally unique solutions. Leadership of professional associations should be seeking advice from their younger employees on how best to appeal to younger members.


One of the keys to success will be an open mind, allowing Generation Y to engage their peers in meaningful ways will require the leadership of professional associations to let go of “the way we’ve always done it” thinking and to embrace change. In this shifting environment organizations will also do well to think beyond membership (as this trend is likely not fully reversible) and think about how revenue streams and claims to industry representation can be maintained.

The relationship between Generation Y employees and their peer group among members and volunteers will lead to strengthening of your association. However, another key component will be appropriate recognition of the efforts of volunteers of all age groups. As we celebrate Canada’s National Volunteer Week, I urge you to thank those who work so hard to make your association strong and vibrant.

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.

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