The “baby bust” generation, also known as Generation X, may be a boon for associations. That's the word from a new study by Arthur Brooks, PhD, associate professor of public administration and director of the Nonprofit Studies Program at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University.

“There's a general intuition around the nonprofit world these days that younger generations are less likely to join,” Brooks says. “But I have found in my research that that's quite wrong.”

Brooks conducted the report for the William E. Smith Institute for Association Research, which is funded by Smith-Bucklin Corp. Generations and the Future of Association Participation, a 35-page report available free of charge at, projects that the number of association members in the United States is expected to rise from 51 million in 2005 to about 55 million in 2015, with the percentage of all workers belonging to associations expected to climb from 28.3 percent to 28.9 percent in that interval.

The widely held notion that associations must struggle to attract younger members stems, in part, from the book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, by Robert Putnam (©2000). The author, citing declining participation in civic and nonprofit organizations, concludes that Americans are less likely to join volunteer organizations for several reasons, among them increased work demands on families, including more people changing locations to find jobs.

In his research, Brooks focuses on one segment of the nonprofit world — professional and trade associations — and finds just the opposite. The number of associations is growing by 0.5 percent annually, while all other nonprofits (unions, charitable, fraternal, neighborhood, and philanthropic) are declining 0.8 percent annually.

“It seemed to me that professional associations might be a substitute for community associations in people's lives, and that is, in fact, what I found,” Brooks says. “Younger people are working harder, are less involved in their neighborhoods, and are more likely to be involved in workplace communities, most notably professional and trade associations.”

In the current service-driven economy, where workers are less likely to band together in the form of labor unions, “we're going to find that associations are going to be a more common type of social capital building and a pretty indispensable resource for professionals,” Brooks contends. “People might be hungry for a different source of community.”

He believes that associations are representative of the new “idea” economy. “We're talking about the golden years of workplace-based social capital with associations smack in the middle of it.”

Age, Not Generation

While the birth rate of Baby Boomers is considerably higher than Generation Xers — the rate dropped from 25 babies per 1,000 people in 1955 to 15 per 1,000 in 1975 — the difference in the workplace population is small. Using U.S. Census Bureau data, Brooks found that if Generation X (born 1965 to 1975) and Generation Y (born after 1975) were combined to equal the range of the Baby Boomer years (born 1946 to 1964), the workplace population of the two would be roughly equal. (Generation X and Y will eventually be combined, Brooks says, with a new generation forming for those born after 1985).

If it's not simply a matter of there being more boomers than younger adults, then the question becomes: Are younger workers apt to join associations? Brooks cites two university surveys that suggest Generation Xers have outpaced Baby Boomers in joining associations. The first — conducted in 2000 — found that 32 percent of professional and trade association membership was made up of Baby Boomers, while 26 percent was Generation Xers. Four years later, a new survey of association participation showed a shift. While the participation rate of Baby Boomers remained the same (32 percent), the percentage of Generation Xers surged from 26 percent to 33 percent.

“Generation X is no longer a lagger, but a leader, in association membership,” he explains. Why the change? In a word — age.

Research shows that as Generation Xers approach 40, their participation in associations increases. “That's the sweet spot of their careers,” he says — and the age that research shows has traditionally had the highest participation rates. “One of the things you find is people are most likely to join associations when they are in their mid-40s,” he says. “The main thing I was trying to do with this study was to separate out age effects from generation effects. It's a very important distinction.”

Buttressing the argument is a comparison of participation between Baby Boomers and Generation Xers at a specific age. When the average Baby Boomer was 25 in 1994, 15 percent belonged to an association; when the average Boomer was 25 in 1977, 14 percent belonged to an association. The overall numbers are projected to rise over the next 10 years as more active Generation Xers replace the generation preceding Baby Boomers (dubbed the Silents).

Tough Competition

If times are so good, why are many associations struggling to attract members and boost meeting attendance? There's more competition. Brooks says. “The number of targets is proliferating faster than the increase in the rate of joining all across the nonprofit economy.” As a result, associations are competing with each other for members. “I'm convinced that if we look at the membership rolls of the associations that are complaining about membership, they're getting a lot of people rotating off and that's absolutely a function of competition.”

In many cases, associations are not targeting the most fertile ground — Generation Xers. “They are just absolutely ripe for the picking because the trajectory of their behavior is toward joining. The only way that associations are going to get this wrong is if they keep trying to tailor their product toward Silent generation folks and Baby Boomers when the Generation Xers are ascendant.”

The biggest difference between Generation X and Baby Boomers is in what they expect to derive from their membership. Younger workers demand more of a return on their investment and are less likely to join an organization where they pay a fee without any “tangible return or real participation,” according to Brooks. A 2004 Maxwell School Poll of Civil Society reveals that 25 percent of Generation Xers belonged to fee-based organizations compared to 45 percent of Baby Boomers. “It is abundantly clear that young people don't join things just to be members. They don't discharge social capital responsibility by writing a check and being a member of something. That's characteristic of a past generation.”

So, organizations have to think more about providing services and creating a sense of community. One way to accomplish this is by being a resource for members' career development, offering programs and services to help at every stage of their working life through retirement. Mentoring programs, where Baby Boomers can tutor Generation Xers, are an effective way to engage Baby Boomers as they retire.

Associations should also provide service opportunities for members. “If you ask someone to serve, they will appreciate it and become even more loyal to you. This is something that practically every good university fund raising establishment understands,” Brooks explains. “Membership associations need to understand this, too.” Service is not just sitting on boards and committees; it's helping other people in the profession or being charitable in areas of interest to the association. Additionally, associations can inculcate loyalty by acting as brokers for charitable behavior among members.

Associations need to come up with creative ways to exploit the community elements of their meetings. A good way to do this is simply by surveying the members. “Ask them what three things would make them come to an association meeting,” Brooks suggests. “And then think creatively about expanding or developing the things at the top of the list, and about integrating them with core offerings at the meeting.”

Making Meetings Work for Gen Xers

“I call them the island generation because they are so distinctive from all other generations,” remarks Chuck Underwood, founder, The Generational Imperative, Cincinnati. Gen Xers are typically less comfortable in social settings than Baby Boomers, he says. And they place a greater emphasis on striking a work/play balance in their lives. “Associations must earn Generation Xers' attendance by making the meeting relevant to their careers and their lives.”

Associations can address these challenges in several ways, says Cam Marston, president, Marston Communications, Charlotte, N.C. First, add some youth to planning committees to get input on the location and the structure of the meeting. Second, include interactive sessions and networking functions that make learning more hands-on and socializing easier. A host to introduce younger members at cocktail parties or a networking session that involves some type of activity rather than just a cocktail mixer are two solutions. Third, introduce educational content with clear takeaways and benefits for the longer term. “They want to learn something that has legs, not just for this industry, but for their career in general,” Marston says.

Percentage of Generation Xers in associations in 2004: 33%

Percentage of Baby Boomers in associations in 2004: 32%

Projected growth of association members from 2005 to 2010: from 51 million to 55 million

Percent that U.S. population belonging to associations is expected to grow between 2005 and 2015: 1% (to 29%)