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Vol. 38, No. 1

The path to Y: Inviting and including the next generation of members

by Deirdre Reid

Smart people continue to put faith in stereotypes. Many Boomers think Generation Y/Millennials are “entitled” or “lazy.” In response, Gen Y might point out that they have a healthier work/life balance and use technology to work more efficiently, and then throw the “workaholic” or “Luddite” label back at Boomers. Can’t we all just get along?

By the way, definitions vary, but generally, members of Gen Y, also known as Millennials, are said to have been born between sometime around 1980 to sometime around 2000. This means that some of them are your youngest members, potential members, and staff members.

Even positive stereotypes don’t always hold up. In a national survey by the career network, 86 percent of human resource professionals labeled Gen Y as tech-savvy, yet only 35 percent of Gen Y identified with that attribute. This generational disconnect gets worse with negative stereotypes. Here are a couple of findings from that survey:

  • 86 percent of Gen Y thought of themselves as hard workers, yet only 11 percent of HR professionals had that opinion.
  • 82 percent of Gen Y said they were loyal to employers, but a mere 1 percent of HR professionals believed Gen Y were loyal employees.

HR professionals aren’t the only ones who would benefit from having a better understanding of Gen Y. Four generations now work side by side in law offices and association meeting rooms: Traditionalists, Boomers, Gen X and Gen Y. These stereotypes lead to misperceptions, and misperceptions lead to bad decisions. Below on some tips for how to help your bar association avoid that trap.

Bridge the generation gap.

“Boomers, Gen X and Gen Y need to talk to each other,” says Michael Wells Jr., chair of the Young Lawyers Division at the North Carolina Bar Association. “Human beings are a lot more complex than their stereotypes.” Cross-generational discussions help staff and members learn how each generation defines success, meaningful work, and an engaging membership experience.

At the NCBA Bar Leadership Institute, speaker Mark Merritt, past president of the Mecklenburg County (N.C.) Bar Association, helps attendees to appreciate each generation’s strengths, weaknesses, biases, and preferences. “The first step,” he says, “is getting the issues out on the table—to understand the unique attributes of each generation, build on strengths and commonalities, and acknowledge differences.”

Bar associations aren’t alone in their need to understand and connect with multiple generations of members. The National Association of REALTORS created a “Mind the Gap” card game to help its members bridge the generation gap. Players discuss 17 different scenarios from another generation’s perspective. Bobbie Albrecht, director of volunteer leadership development, describes it as “a perfect way to navigate the challenges of having four generations in the work force.”

By 2015, Generation Y will outnumber Boomers in the workforce, according to Sarah Sladek at XYZ University. The Bar Association of San Francisco plans to be ready. “Although lawyers tend to retire later than other professions, Gen X and Y lawyers will soon be the decision-makers in law firms and legal departments,” says Yolanda Jackson, BASF’s deputy executive director. “If we don’t know how to connect with them, we’ll be in trouble.”

Agrees Mary Amos Augsburger, executive director at the Ohio State Bar Association, “Gen Y are our future leaders. We must learn how to connect with them at all stages of their career and provide the tools to make them successful.”

Help Gen Y cope with unprecedented challenges.

“Students enrolling in law school this fall will graduate with an average of around $200,000 in educational debt,” says Paul Campos, law professor at the University of Colorado. According to a report from NALP, only 64 percent of 2012 law school graduates obtained a job for which bar passage is required— the lowest percentage the study has ever measured. (Note: NALP, now the full name for this organization, was formerly an acronym for National Association for Law Placement.)

In response to this gloomy environment, BASF provides recent graduates with training, pro bono work experience, mentorship, and debt reduction information—all part of its Mind the Gap program. The bar also plans to offer training in the business skills needed by the many young lawyers who are opening their own practice because they can’t find a job. 

Again, bar associations are not alone. Young lawyers face the same challenges as many of their peers graduating with other professional degrees. The New Young Professionals Network at the Maryland Association of CPAs identified several challenges for young professionals:

  • information overload;
  • difficulty achieving desired work/life balance;
  • poor cross-generational communication and understanding;
  • learning networking skills, particularly for solo practitioners;
  • keeping up with technology, especially the cloud;
  • finding career guidance; and
  • understanding the benefits of social media.

The young members of MACPA asked their association to create an action plan for what they identified as the most critical challenges: generational issues, work/life balance, and creating a group focused on small, entrepreneurial CPA firms. Members from the NYPN participate in the association's annual planning process to help guide this work.

Design programs with Gen Y, not just for them.

Data, not assumptions, must drive decisions about services and programs for young lawyers. OSBA uses feedback from members of the Young Lawyer Section and participants in the bar’s Leadership Academy as well as data collected from surveys and focus groups to educate its board about Gen Y needs. The board also includes two young members who help guide strategic decisions.

Usually, association boards are limited to members who have climbed the long leadership ladder and paid their way in years of service. This means that the very members who will determine the future health of the association—Gen Y members—are often excluded from board service because of qualification requirements in association bylaws. Inviting young members to participate in board discussions can be an easy short-term solution until bylaws can be amended to reflect the need to have a more diverse and inclusive board.

Although young lawyer sections provide participation opportunities, many young lawyers and bar association experts say they also isolate young members from the rest of the association. “In many associations, Gen Y has no power except for putting on their own programming,” notes the BASF’s Jackson. “They need to participate in the ‘big bar’ and know their opinions are valued. That won’t happen if they’re sitting on the sidelines.”

However, young members must be prepared for leadership roles. In a recent ASAE Foundation governance study, 65 percent of participating CEOs said it’s difficult to find board members who possess strategic thinking and leadership skills. One way to prepare young lawyers for board service and other leadership roles in their association, profession, and community is establishing leadership academies and other leadership development programs. Other young lawyers can be provided with opportunities to lead projects and task forces.

Provide a meaningful membership experience.

MACPA started preparing for Gen Y back in 2000 by establishing “an under-35 task force that talked about what young professionals would want from a CPA association if we were to start over,” recalls Tom Hood, the association’s CEO. A profession-wide vision—CPA Vision 2025—continues to provide context for the association’s decisions.

As part of the bar’s 2020 plan, BASF departments are reviewing all programs and services to determine their relevance and value to Gen Y. Programs that fall short will be tweaked or terminated. “We’re looking at each program and figuring out how we can bring Gen Y into it,” Jackson explains. “What roles can they take on?”

The membership committee at the NCBA, meanwhile, is composed of young lawyers who regularly discuss Gen Y membership needs and develop strategies to meet them. “Young members aren’t going to join because everyone else is, particularly with the financial challenges of school loan debt and going out on their own,” said Michael Wells Sr., a past president of the bar—and yes, father to Michael Wells Jr. “We have to prove the monetary value of membership by showing them what each service would cost them if they weren’t members. As a result of proving our value in this way, young lawyers are renewing.”

In BASF’s 2020 exercise, nothing is safe from review, including one of the bar’s huge revenue drivers: its membership model. Young members are looking for a different type of membership experience from what older members seek, the bar believes. “Young lawyers aren’t going to be passive members,” Jackson says. “They want to be engaged if they’re going to belong.”

Gen Y is used to collaboration and co-creation, and brings this mindset to membership. “Associations as organizational institutions have been slow to react to the emergence of this new participatory culture—one where members believe their contributions matter,” says Jeff Hurt, executive vice president at Velvet Chainsaw Consulting. Associations must find new ways for members to participate in the organization’s direction, programming, and events, he believes. “Members are no longer willing to be passive observers and consumers of information only.”

Traditional volunteer structures must evolve as well, according to Elizabeth Engel, CAE, and Peggy Hoffman, CAE, authors of the whitepaper, The Mission Driven Volunteer:

“While younger, upcoming generations are willing and enthusiastic volunteers, they seek different kinds of volunteer experiences than their predecessors, ones that are less about structure, position, and prestige, and are focused instead on independence, meaning, impact, and ‘getting it done,’ none of which are easily accommodated by the traditional committee model.”

That’s why MACPA moved from a traditional volunteer structure to one based on engaging members in the mission of the organization. Staff no longer supports a “limited inner circle of volunteers.” Instead, resources are invested in developing low-commitment opportunities that increase member engagement. As a result, 25 percent of MACPA members are now involved in volunteer activities.

Become the driver of Gen Y’s success.

“New lawyers have three major concerns,” says the OSBA’s Augsburger. “They need to provide for their family, pay off their debt, and become competent in their practice. If we can provide tools to help them with their practice, they won’t have to worry about the other two concerns.” The OSBA is experimenting with technology and social media to help young members connect and participate, since they’re often too busy getting their practice established to travel to meetings.

As Gen Y enters the workforce, its members want to learn small business management, presentation, non-sales selling, collaboration, and networking skills. The NCBA started special discussion forums for young lawyers looking for help with start-up, marketing, and technology issues. “They need to hear real-life experiences on what to do or what not to do,” says Michael Wells Sr. “We help them take advantage of the collective wisdom of lawyers across the state.”

Gen Y members also want an opportunity to make a difference. “We use our community outreach and pro bono programs to draw Gen Y members and non-members into BASF and then work to get them involved in other ways,” Jackson notes.

Adds Michael Wells Jr., “Gen Y embraces technology, but we still want one-to-one connections, involvement, and community. We want to meet other members and work on projects that make the world a better place.”

Invest in your association’s future.

The definition of member engagement evolves as members evolve. What worked for Boomers won’t necessarily work for Gen X or Gen Y. Gen Y has grown up in an age of personalized and "knowing" brands like Apple and Amazon. They expect organizations to anticipate their needs and provide only relevant and targeted communication and programs.

This is the age of responsive, social, and mobile-friendly organizations. Associations must invest in technology that will collect and leverage the data they need to understand and communicate with different membership segments. They must also have the integrated systems and platforms needed to provide member services: association management systems, content management systems, online communities, event and exhibitor registration systems, learning management systems, online voting platforms, and email marketing software.

“We’re growing our online presence,” Augsburger says. “Our board has invested in a studio to give us a new way to connect with members and provide CLE and informational webcasts. The board understands the need to have the resources to update the website and implement cutting-edge technology.”

Says Jackson, “We plan to upgrade our BASF website to make it more interactive and mobile-friendly. We also need a new AMS, one that will integrate with our LMS, website, and other systems so we can use our data more effectively and better understand our membership. The board has made a commitment to use some of our reserves because that’s what it will take to move us forward.”

The NCBA’s board has made a large capital investment in technology. The bar hired additional social media and technology staff, and plans to upgrade the website and AMS. “We’ve seen a huge shift from even five years ago,” says Michael Wells Sr. “You must segment your members not only by age and career level, but also by interests and past activity so you can speak to their needs and make their membership experience relevant. Technology allows you to do that now.”

Becoming a multi-generation association requires a commitment to and investment in cross-generational conversation and change. Leadership must be willing to listen, learn, and commit to the change necessary to create a meaningful membership experience for all generations.

“Focus on things that bring generations together and allow us to learn from each other,” advises Michael Wells Jr. “Together, we can build associations that will be relevant and nimble—providing a changing mix of services based on the needs of our members.”

Additional resources

If you would like to learn more about the different generations, particularly X and Y, here are some helpful resources:

Deirdre Reid

Deirdre Reid, CAE, is a freelance writer based in Raleigh, N.C. Her association management experience includes positions at the National Association of Home Builders and the California Building Industry Association. She can be reached at, [email protected], or on Twitter @deirdrereid.