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Generation Y
Guest Posts

Young Staff, Big Results

I recently transitioned from the Arizona Parks and Recreation Association to the young and energetic team at the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas. After 20+ years of Baby Boomer generation leadership, a 30-something Matt Gruhn took the reins at MRAA in 2011. Since then, membership has grown 188%! Prior to his leadership at MRAA, Matt played a crucial role in reviving the Marine Dealer Conference and Expo (MDCE). Under his direction, participation grew from 97 in 2007 to more than 1,000 in 2012 and we expect continued growth this year.

I recently transitioned from the Arizona Parks and Recreation Association to the young and energetic team at the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas. After 20+ years of Baby Boomer generation leadership, a 30-something Matt Gruhn took the reins at MRAA in 2011. Since then, membership has grown 188%! Prior to his leadership at MRAA, Matt played a crucial role in reviving the Marine Dealer Conference and Expo (MDCE). Under his direction, participation grew from 97 in 2007 to more than 1,000 in 2012 and we expect continued growth this year.

In addition to Matt’s palpable enthusiasm, he has surrounded himself with young professionals and fresh ideas. Our staff is all 40 years old or younger, with two thirds of us in their 20s. So, why is it that young professional create big results?


For those of you who follow generational research, you have most likely encountered sweeping statements about self-serving Baby Boomers (1946-1964) or Millennials (1982-1995) who believe they are entitled to everything. What I have personally encountered among young professionals is a drive for improving the bigger picture. Rather than climbing the company ladder, Karen Foster, sociologist, post-doc fellow and author, found younger generations tend to look for “work that means something, work that allows the worker to feel like they are contributing to something bigger than themselves.” As a Millennial, this resonates with me. My career choices have been highly altruistic, focusing on education, environmental issues and association management.

Building a team focused on “the greater good” has been extremely beneficial for MRAA. Our Director of Membership and Education, in her 30s, left her career in journalism to pursue her passion for the marine industry. In the year she has been with this association, her appetite for improvement has reinvigorated an almost dormant educational foundation and produced record numbers of applicants for the Darlene Briggs Marine Woman of the Year Award. She has also established our highly popular Marine Retail Universities, improved MDCE educational offerings and is on her way to developing an online learning center.

Michael Geatz, our Marketing Coordinator, is fresh out of college and overflowing with new ideas. In the world of marketing, tools and technology are changing at an increasingly rapid pace. His ability to navigate through multiple realms of member engagement and recruitment have most certainly contributed to our massive membership growth and conference participation.


Another interesting avenue for younger engagement at MRAA is the role of the Young Leaders Advisory Council (YLAC). YLAC was created in 2009 to engage the next generation of marine dealers. Since then, YLAC has played a critical role in moving the association forward. In addition, this group has funneled young professionals to board positions, allowing for a stronger voice from future industry leaders.

I have no doubt that a large part of our momentum here at MRAA is correlated to the young, refreshing and unconstrained atmosphere. According to Forbes, “young professionals want their space and an opportunity to express their voice without limitation.” At MRAA, not only are young professionals encouraged to play important roles, they are given the freedom to carry out these roles in their own way.

If you are looking for big results, do not be afraid to hire young professionals and set them loose. You may be surprised by the results.

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.

Sonja Moseley

Director of Strategy and Innovation at XYZ University, Sonja is passionate about growing intentionally. She isn’t afraid to ask tough questions that break down barriers and lay the groundwork for success. A Master of Nonprofit Studies coupled with leadership roles in nonprofit and membership organizations have equipped her with a unique perspective on mission-driven management. Sonja draws upon her experience to help organizations uncover opportunities and develop young talent.

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