An opportunity and a Challenge

Members of Generation X will prove fertile ground for recruitment by associations over the next decade, but associations must work harder to provide Gen Xers tangible benefits if they want to attract and retain them. That's the conclusion of the first study conducted under the auspices of the William E. Smith Institute for Association Research, a creation of SmithBucklin, the nation's largest association management company. "If current trends persist, we can expect more workers, and a higher percentage of workers, to join associations over the coming decade," according to the study, "Generations and the Future of Association Participation."

The study finds that like association executives in general, association planners must create programs in which Gen-X attendees see a direct return on their investment of time and money. Toward that end, electronic communications and networking probably will play a growing role in association meetings, but in most cases to enhance in-person meetings rather than replace them, says Henry Givray, Smith-Bucklin's chief executive.

The study found that members of Generation X joined associations at a slightly higher rate than members of the baby boom generation when members of the two generations were the same age. Fifteen percent of Gen Xers belonged to associations when they were 25 years old, about a point higher than for baby boomers. So the study actually counters the conventional wisdom that Gen Xers are more focused on personal fulfillment than their careers, and as a result are less likely to join professional associations than are baby boomers.

As for the conclusion that Gen Xers want a more concrete return on their association investment than do baby boomers, the study points to market research indicating that Gen Xers demand more detailed information about how their donations to charities are spent than boomers did at a comparable age. The study suggests that future association members may demand more services such as group health insurance and retirement planning, especially as corporate America continues to cut workers' health and retirement benefits. "If there is a meaningful difference in Generation X workers and baby boomers," states the report, "it is not in the propensity to join associations, but rather in their expectations about what membership means, and the returns it provides."