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Vol. 31, No. 6

Think you know Generation X? Think again

by Marilyn Cavicchia

If you’re of the baby boom generation or older, here’s a quick test to gauge what you know about Generation X:

1) Associations are doomed, because Gen Xers (those born between 1965 and 1975) are “slackers” who are much less apt to join organizations than previous generations were. True or false?

2) If you want to attract Generation X and the next generation down (called Generation Y or Millennials, born from 1976 to the present), then you need to emphasize technology over personal interaction. For example, instead of the annual meeting, you absolutely should do a webcast. True or false?

The answer to both of those questions is “false,” said Arthur C. Brooks, speaking at the ABA Bar Leadership Institute in Chicago this March. Surprised? So was Brooks, who is director of the Nonprofit Studies Program at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. Brooks was asked by association management company SmithBucklin to look into just how bad the “Generation X crisis” would be for associations. But what he found instead of doom and gloom was a different way of looking at generational data—and a lot of good news.

A question of age, not character

When Brooks began informally interviewing association leaders, the more or less unanimous response was that associations are in for trouble ahead, because Gen Xers are not loyal and are not joiners. As he began his research, then, he was in an “intellectual box,” meaning that he was certain his findings would confirm this bleak picture.

But when he did a survey in 2004 that asked, “Do you belong to a trade association?” 33 percent of Gen X respondents said yes, compared with 32 percent of baby boomers and 30 percent of those members of the “silent generation” (born between 1925 and 1945) who were still working. Even Generation Y had a different response from what one might expect: Twenty-four percent said they belonged to such an association. Brooks’ first thought was, “Something’s going wrong.”

But further study revealed that the flaw was not in his survey, but in some of the underlying assumptions involved in generational research. It became clear, Brooks said, that some of the behaviors that have been classified as character traits inherent to Gen X are, in fact, simply a function of age. “They just haven’t gotten as old as us yet,” he noted.

In fact, when Brooks compared data regarding what percentage of baby boomers had joined a professional association by age 25 with how many Gen Xers had done so, he found that 13 percent of baby boomers had joined by this relatively young age, while 15 percent of Gen Xers had.

Age 45 is considered the “sweet spot” for professional associations, Brooks added, the time when people are far enough along in their careers that they become more interested in joining such groups. The oldest members of Generation X will turn 42 this year, he noted, so they are nearing that prime age.

The assumption that Gen Xers don’t join groups has been based in part on the fact that they don’t join community organizations as readily as previous generations did, Brooks said. He identified several reasons for that trend: Gen Xers change jobs frequently, which often necessitates moving; the two-income family is more typical, meaning there’s no one home during the day; and Gen Xers tend to have children later in life than in previous generations, meaning they aren’t as connected with their neighborhoods as young adults were in the past.

Brooks recalled that one of his graduate students hit the nail on the head when he put all these factors together and said, “ ‘They probably associate through work, right?’ ”

What about job hopping?

It is true, Brooks said, that Gen Xers and those in Generation Y change jobs … a lot. Indeed, Brooks has found that his master’s students will have an average tenure of about 18 months in their first jobs after graduation, and over their working life, they will have an average of nine different jobs in four different career fields.

But he disagrees with the notion that this means they are inherently disloyal and therefore wouldn’t make good association members.

“It’s not that they’re disloyal,” he noted. “They’re smart.”

Young adults today face a vastly different workplace than in years past, he explained; for one thing, there’s an expectation that each person is in charge of his or her own career and development, instead of being able to rely on one firm to guide him or her from graduation through retirement. And with family life delayed and free time scarce, career takes prime importance when it comes to overall life satisfaction, he added.

The fast-paced, transitory workplace creates a real challenge for those seeking connection through work, he noted: “How do you build a community if you’re moving every 18 months?”

Enter the association

Professional associations are in prime position to offer community and connection, Brooks said—if they are willing to reconsider how they think of benefits and services. He defined benefits as intangibles such as networking, education, community, and career help. Services are the concrete means of delivering those benefits, and include such offerings as publications, meetings, research, and legislative efforts. It is important, Brooks said, to begin the discussion by considering what benefits the association offers or should offer, and then move to what services can help deliver those benefits.

Whether it’s on the benefit side or the service side, what do younger members want? “They’re no different from any other humans at any other time,” Brooks said. “They need human relationships.”

E-mail, Web sites, podcasts and the like certainly have their place, Brooks said, but he is concerned that some associations think those are enough to attract young members. More important, he explained, is real connection and involvement: “If you want Gen Xers to join, they have to get something and they have to do something.”

Associations that truly are suffering when it comes to younger members are those that are “fee-based and low-touch,” Brooks said. Examples of such groups, in which the extent of most members’ involvement is to pay a fee and carry a card, include the Sierra Club, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the National Organization for Women, he added. Among the generations older than Generation X, 48 percent belong to at least one such group, Brooks noted, compared with just 24 percent among Generation X. Unlike some of the other statistics Brooks cited, this one may be a generational preference and not an age-related phenomenon that will smooth out with time.

So, assuming you don’t want to be one of those fee-based and low-touch organizations, what is it you can offer for younger members? Networking, mentoring, and other career development opportunities should be at the top of the list, Brooks said. Offering these benefits means the bar must acknowledge and accept that times have changed, and must then move forward to help young lawyers succeed in today’s legal workplace, he noted.

“We can regret that they move around a lot, or we can quit wasting time and help them do it,” he said. One way to help a job-hopping generation find continuity, Brooks suggested, is for the bar to offer benefits such as a credit union or dental or health insurance, so members can carry such benefits with them even as they move from one firm to another. But benefits shouldn’t just be nuts-and-bolts stuff, Brooks noted: “What is the most portable benefit you can give somebody? Creative energy.”

The desire to serve

It’s important not to leave law firms themselves out of the equation, Brooks said. Many firms have found that hiring a volunteer coordinator can cut down on some of the turnover among young lawyers, because they are happier and more productive if given time and opportunities to serve others, he explained. Associations, too, can tap into that desire to serve, and can use it when making the case for why firms should make sure their young lawyers join the bar.

In addition to one-time service projects or episodic volunteering—in which a member is part of a group that works on one specific task over a discrete time period—Brooks said Gen Xers are looking for real participation and long-term involvement with the bar. The perception is that they are too busy for this, but Brooks said that’s another reason bars should communicate their value to law firms, and not just to individual lawyers. If firms know that bar membership makes for a happier lawyer who perhaps is less apt to look for other job opportunities or leave the profession altogether, they’ll be more willing to consider bar service “part of the workweek” rather than a distraction from it, he explained.

At the same time that they acknowledge that young lawyers change jobs often, associations can offer connection, community, and resources that help lawyers feel more satisfied at work and perhaps more apt to stay put longer, Brooks said. He cited a recent study that found that professional association membership leads to greater job satisfaction: Among association members, 45 percent said they were “very happy” in their jobs, compared with 36 percent for nonmembers.

The best use of episodic volunteering, he said, might be as an opportunity to spot candidates for longer term leadership positions. But that becomes difficult, he added, when Gen Xers see that the pipeline to leadership is “clogged with baby boomers.” One solution, he said, is to consider setting aside a certain number of board seats for lawyers who are under 40, so they can see there is a way to offer their voice and to start on the leadership path.

Rethinking an association’s membership offerings, governance structure, and overall culture is not always easy, Brooks said, but it is important work if bars are to adapt and grow. And there is tremendous potential, he stressed: “Generation X is not a disaster. We are not doomed.”