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Generation X

Stories From A Gen X Outlier: Why I Join

Sarah Sladek‘s presentation to my employer, a professional society of dentists, on the demographic challenges facing associations was fascinating, not just because it rang true to my organization, but also because it confirmed that I was a Gen X outlier.

Sarah Sladek‘s presentation to my employer, a professional society of dentists, on the demographic challenges facing associations was fascinating, not just because it rang true to my organization, but also because it confirmed that I was a Gen X outlier.

As a ’66 baby, I’m on the cusp of generations, so perhaps that is an explanation for my “joining,” more attuned to a Boomer than my own generation. My beautiful bride, three years my junior and also a Xer likes to explain that I don’t know the meaning, nor have the ability to say “no.” I certainly have an affinity for wanting to help people, which explains partially how I wound up in association work.

But it’s deeper than that I think. My first “join” was U.S. Army after high school. Does that count? An assortment of student organizations in college and law school soon followed.

A career joiner

As I got into my association management career, the real joining started. First and foremost is the American Legion, the largest veterans group in the nation. To be completely forthright, my membership was not entirely for altruistic means. Coming off an unsuccessful run for public office, I thought expanding my personal and professional network as well as associating with a respected organization would facilitate my efforts at the next political campaign. Which by the way, still hasn’t come about.

A funny thing happened though with my being involved in the Legion. The wise, mostly WWII  vets, did something significant. They made me post Vice-Commander, and then Commander. And the more involved I became, the more I enjoyed what I was doing: helping out not just my fellow vets, but also significantly contributing to my community.

And then I was asked to join the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Then the Knights of Columbus. Then the Catholic Order of Foresters. Then three church groups. Then Boards of Zoning Appeals in three different towns and a Plan Commission in one of them. Then three precinct organizations and several political campaigns. Did I mention that I’ve been an officer (usually the president) in all of the above? And many of the above have overlapping membership.

As I stated earlier, my wife says I can’t say no. (More about her in a second.)

Professionally, I am a member of the American Society of Association Executives and the Association Forum of Chicagoland and also chair a Forum Shared Interest Group.

A family focus: What’s in it for us, for our future?

During all of this, my wife and I started a family. The existence of my children helped clarify and focus my need to participate in organizations like the ones above. As a dad, how best to leave this world a better place (or at least maintain the status quo) for those children of mine? You got it – join in groups that work to do that, get involved, lead when asked. Plus there’s that old adage – if not me, then who? If not now, then when?

I also get a good deal of psychic income from helping people – something consistent with being an association exec. And it certainly is a way to give back to the communities which I’ve lived, because I have been tremendously blessed.

Now I hadn’t grown up in that environment. My parents facilitated a stable environment for me, but otherwise did not get involved in the community. My wife’s parents did so to some extent, but she herself didn’t. Until now. (Shout out to my Gen Xer wife who says I can’t say “no.” Ms. “You can’t say no” joined the Legion Ladies Auxiliary, Catholic Order of Foresters and Girl Scouts, and is a leader in all of them).

So is it a family that associates together, stays together? I hope so, because it works for us. And slowly but surely, our circle of friends, family and neighbors are being drawn into the groups to which we belong.

I still consider myself an outlier. And I’m ok with that. But the value that I have received, and the value that I know I have contributed to my community makes joining and participating in associations all worth it.

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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