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Save the Associations

Listening for Success: Knowing what young professionals want

Minnesota Optometric Association – Save the Associations Vol. 2

Three years ago the Minnesota Optometric Association (MOA) revamped their strategic plan. When reviewing the research that would inform the new plan, they were both enlightened and scared by the statistics on their membership demographics.

The research revealed that a large number of members were nearing the end of their careers; if MOA wanted to continue to have an association, they would need younger members.

The Creation of Young ODs

MOA adapted quickly to the news of their aging association by creating the Young OD (Young Optometrists) program with a long range goal of engaging and retaining this population through their ascending years and beyond.

Starting with their first networking event, MOA has been learning that attracting a new generation requires more than just adding “Young Professionals” to the event title. To successfully attract young professionals, you need to listen to them to understand what they want. One stand out example of adapting to younger generations is the timing of events. For most MOA events, the standard time is a middle of the week evening, but when the association consulted the Young ODs they shared they would be more likely to show up on a Monday or Friday.

The Success of Young ODs

Not only has MOA gained younger members with the Young OD initiative, but there have been additional benefits on the local and national level.

Community Support

When reaching out to sponsors for the Young OD events, MOA realized they had created something many businesses needed – an opportunity to reach young professionals. Like associations, businesses are struggling to reach the younger generations; businesses understand the importance of being able to sponsor these events.

Also like associations, these sponsors have had to adapt. They have learned that the younger generations do not respond to them coming in and talking at the group. To engage these professionals, sponsors have to create 2-way conversations through roundtable-style discussions or something more interactive than a PowerPoint presentation.

Young Board Members

As of May 2018, 4 out of 10 MOA board members are under the age of 40. MOA is recognizing the importance of multi-generation representation. The younger generations bring fresh insights to the board, and the Baby Boomers are able to pass down their invaluable knowledge and experience. In fact, the MOA board has reserved a non-voting seat for past presidents to lend historical knowledge and advice.

National Young ODs

MOA’s Young OD program has been such a success that when their national organization created a young professionals pilot program they chose Minnesota to be one of the two pilot states. The national pilot was turned into an official program with most affiliate associations now having a Young OD program.

The Future of Young ODs

The success of the Young OD program has positioned itself for continued growth. A defining characteristic of the younger generations is their lack of patience; they have grown up receiving instant feedback on everything from video games to school exams. This lack of patience does not mix well with the legislative process that has a large impact on the optometric profession and advocacy, which is a key component of MOA.

The next big move for the Young OD program is to introduce legislative workshops to help the younger members understand the timelines and the processes. 

Advice for Other Associations

In addition to listening to the younger generations about what they want, MOA’s advice for other associations is to actively reach out to young professionals. Instead of just asking for volunteers, ask current members to nominate the ‘shining stars’ they know from work or networking. This kind of recruiting is more likely to bring quantity and quality to your young professionals program.

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.

XYZ University - Save the Associations Blog Series

All summer long XYZ University will be sharing inspiring stories of associations that are doing something exceptional to 'save' their association and their industry from an untimely demise. XYZ U exists to help organizations engage younger generations of members, talent, and marketshare. We offer unparalleled generational expertise, coupled with an in-depth knowledge of future economic, membership, and marketing trends, to advise clients on the best strategies for long-term growth, relevance, and market engagement.

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