The future of associations: Is the millennial generation willing to lead the way?

It’s no secret that on Jan. 1, 2011 (just about 13 months ago to the day), the oldest members of the Baby Boomer generation celebrated their 65th birthday. Since that historic day, it’s estimated that more than 10,000 Baby Boomers have reached the age of 65 each and every day (and, believe it or not, this trend is expected to continue for 19 straight years). Staggering, right?

Undoubtedly, many of these Baby Boomers serve—or have served—the association community in top leadership positions, including that of president and CEO or executive director (not to mention a multitude of other C-suite, executive-level and director-level positions). And although not all are immediately retiring upon their 65th birthday, many have at least begun making plans for the future.

And we’re not talking about a few dozen organizations and a handful of retirements here. In 2000, it was estimated that the United States alone had more than 23,000 national associations. And that number only grows when you consider the 115,000 state, local and regional associations, as well as the 1,300 international organizations.

Enter the millennial generation (approximately 80 million strong).

Millennials want to make a difference in the world, be heard, feel like they are contributing, innovate and know they are succeeding. They live in a generation that moves at an extremely fast pace and are often left wondering why everyone in the workplace is not moving as fast as them.  By and large, millennials also work well on teams. They know how to delegate efficiently and choose the person best suited for a task based on skill, not hierarchy or seniority.

Millennials also bring to the workforce a unique proclivity for technology. They utilize social media tools daily and tend to remain connected long after the traditional workday has ended. They are more ethnically and racially diverse than older adults. They’re also less religious, less likely to have served in the military and are on track to become the most educated generation in American history.

But are they ready to lead our associations in light of this anticipated exodus from top leadership positions nationwide? (Better yet, are they willing to do so?)

Hear me out for a moment before you get crazy. (I know you want to; I had a similar conversation with a seasoned association executive and a room full of young association and supplier professionals just last week.) My question is not about the skills and expertise of the millennial generation (either now or in the future). I know they are great leaders and I know they are up to the challenge.

The question is really about interest. Is the millennial generation interested in the generalist lifestyle (or would they prefer to be experts in a particular field)? Are their feelings about hierarchy, governance and authority in competition with the present ideologies that form the backbone of our associations? Are they willing to fight the good fight and make the necessary changes to keep our organizations nimble, competitive and solvent?

Consider, for a moment, the unofficial (but widely offered) advice given to each new CAE candidate studying to sit for the exam: Plan to answer each question as a seasoned chief staff executive (presumably, Caucasian) from a national professional society. This, alone, implies that our leaders and, in turn, our organizations are to some extent predictable, conventional and unimaginative. Who’s to say the millennial generation is interested in investing their time and energy into changing this paradigm?

Certainly, some are eager to meet this challenge head-on (as was evidenced by my conversation last week); however, a majority of my colleagues seemed undecided. Perhaps the entrepreneurial spirit implicit in this generation is just too enticing. Most assuredly, opportunities abound. My peers are—by their own admission—interested in establishing association management firms of their own, serving as industry consultants and hitting the speaker circuit.

So, my question to you is this (and it’s an important one this week): What are you doing to attract young professionals to leadership positions within your organization? Is your organization committed to breaking the proverbial mold (especially as it relates to long-standing organizational behavior) and celebrating diversity (including diversity of staff, board and member composition, as well as diversity of skills, values and opinions)? What else are you doing to ensure the millennial generation will want to lead your organization long after your Baby Boomer executives have retired?

17 Responses to “The future of associations: Is the millennial generation willing to lead the way?”

  1. February 3, 2012 at 8:25 pm

    great blog. Our book, Millennial Momentum: How a New Generation is Remaking America, emphasized the very themes of a change in leadership that you talk about here. We believe the shift holds enormous promise for the non-profit world, including associations.

  2. February 6, 2012 at 4:20 pm

    Awesome! Thanks for the comment. Glad to know I’m on the right track. What would you say is another key takeaway highlighted in your book/research?

    • February 6, 2012 at 4:45 pm

      The previous civic generation, GI’s, created the social fabric of America’ s towns–Kiwanis, Elks, etc. This civic generation, Millennials, are creating the social fabric of America’s like minded communities–on the web and in social media. Since associations are predicated on the common interests of those engaged in an activity or profession, they should be able to leverage this tendency on the part of Millennials to gain new strength.

  3. February 9, 2012 at 2:18 pm

    I joke with people and say for the first time ever we have what I call “four-play” in the workplace. This actually refers to the fact that there are currently four generations in the workplace at the same time. The boomer generation currently dominates leadership positions. Their energy and engagement are admirable. Yet most groups have not been successful in getting millennials engaged on a path to association leadership. You ask if they are interested. I am not sure. However, I have observed that the echo-boomers do not know how to get involved. Many groups claim to have young professional (YP) groups, but that is not enough. And guess what? The millenials do not want to just be by themselves. They want to be with the heavy hitters too. So you need to mix it up. If you want to get millenials engaged don’t give them a token YP group, really get them networked with all the centers of influence.

    Mentorship is also critical to engagement. If you ask almost any leader in the veteran, boomer or x-generations, they will tell you they had a professional (non-family) mentor who helped with their careers. Today, leaders seem too impatient and overscheduled to mentor. I know I can be guilty of this. This week I was at the White House with a group of business leaders from our region to discuss job creation and the economy. U.S. Treasurer Rosie Rios talked about an initiative called “impact investing” which refers to funding specific mentoring programs for youth around the country. It reinforces that millenials crave engagement and networking just like we all do, but they need direction. We all need to play a role in developing them as future leaders.

  4. February 9, 2012 at 3:19 pm

    Annie, I love your comments. Thanks for joining this discussion. You remind me of a conversation I, too, have championed in recent days related to young professional engagement. First, young professionals have to want to ascend into leadership positions (both staff and volunteer roles). And I believe that most do. The more important component of this equation (similar to any diversity and inclusion discussion) is that every aspect of the organization must be positioned in such a way that pulls up these young professionals into leadership roles. Staff members, board members and other volunteer leaders have to seek out opportunities to engage young professionals. And not just by bringing them to the table (or creating the token young professional group), but by giving them a meaningful platform upon which to speak and be heard. Second, I agree that mentoring is critical to engagement. It’s important to skill development, self confidence and, often, to getting ahead. After all, it’s not always about what you know, but who you know (especially in a competitive, downturn economy and given the recent rise of the relational business model).

  5. 7 Harrison Coerver
    February 13, 2012 at 2:18 pm

    Associations cling to tradional operating models that I believe have little appeal to young professionals. Association relevance is at risk unless radical changes come quickly. We need youth on our boards NOW but most associations are oblivious to the growing disconnect. It may not end well.

  6. February 13, 2012 at 3:28 pm

    Harrison: Thanks for your thoughts! I agree 100 percent. Are you engaged with any organizations that have actively recruited young/emerging professionals to serve on their board of directors? If so, how has that addition impacted the organization? (It would be great to find some case studies/success stories from which to share additional insights and best practices.)

  7. March 6, 2012 at 11:03 am

    Sigh. Yet another discussion about the next generation of association leadership–an not even a mention of Generation X. I know there are supposedly fewer of them, but I didn’t realize there were so few that we could safely dismiss them from all consideration. I sure hope those Millennials figure out how to fix all our problems. It won’t be safe to pass on the reins until they do.

  8. March 6, 2012 at 11:43 am


    You are correct. Generation X is smaller in size (significantly smaller, in fact, than previous and succeeding generations), encompassing approximately 44 to 50 million Americans; however, that’s not the reason for the omission. Members of Generation X are largely in their 30s and early 40s. Many are already climbing the career ladder and serve in capacities ranging from mid-to-upper management. They are impacting the association community now – and most are doing a tremendous job. The problem (or, more accurately, the concern) lies in our future. We must continue to draw millennials to the association profession. We must orient them, identify challenges facing our industry and collaboratively develop innovative solutions that will allow our organizations to both grow and thrive (which, quite frankly, means attracting more millennials as members, volunteer leaders and staff). My fear is that many of these young, entrepreneurial individuals will be turned off by the association community if they’re needs and wants (as employees and volunteers) are not adequately met. We are talking, after all, about a highly-motivated demographic that doesn’t take well to answering phones, opening the mail and making photo copies. Certainly, we all must “pay our dues.” But, at what price? The bottom line is this: As organizations, we are stronger with diverse staffs, boards of directors and membership. Care should be taken to engage this diversity (the skills, talents, expertise and opinions held by all stakeholders) to ensure our organizations remain nimble, competitive and solvent. Until we do, the future of our organizations may be at risk – not because Generation X isn’t doing a good job at leading us into the future, but because there are no future leaders to take the reins once the last of Generation X has retired.

  9. March 9, 2012 at 10:52 am

    If I misinterpreted your post, Aaron, I apologize. But if I misinterpreted it, I misinterpreted it twice, because now that I’ve read it again, it seems doubly clear to me that you are talking about Millennials taking over the reins of leadership from the retiring Baby Boomers. I don’t necessarily disagree with your comments above about the need to make association management an attractive profession to the new generation in the workforce, but it seems like those changes are more likely to be made by the generation currently rising into leadership positions, not the one counting the days until their Medicare payments start.

  10. March 9, 2012 at 11:11 am

    In my opinion, the changes you speak of may ultimately start with Generation X, but will not be fully realized throughout the association community (a critical mass, if you will) until the millennials ascend into leadership. I hope that I’m wrong, but my experience tells me that a change of this magnitude (governance models, membership models, staffing models, etc.) take much time, energy and resources – something that simply cannot be achieved overnight.

    [Thank you, by the way, for pushing me on this subject. It’s helped me further refine my thinking on this issue.]

  11. March 12, 2012 at 12:05 pm

    With respect, Aaron, by the time Millennials rise into leadership positions, there will be one or two new generations in the workforce that everyone will be trying to figure out how to engage with. Generation X is changing the leadership profile of our society (as will Millennials and every future generation). There is nothing to fully realize. Just an ever evolving process of leadership potential and management practices.

  12. March 12, 2012 at 4:21 pm

    Perhaps this post (and statistics) will shed some additional light on this issue? http://bit.ly/z9eHRK

  13. August 2, 2013 at 11:32 pm

    I leave a response each time I like a article on a site or
    if I have something to add to the discussion. It’s triggered by the passion displayed in the article I browsed. And on this article The future of associations: Is the millennial generation willing to lead the way? | Event Garde Blog with Aaron Wolowiec. I was actually moved enough to post a thought 🙂 I do have a couple of questions for you if you usually do not mind. Is it only me or do a few of the responses appear as if they are coming from brain dead visitors? 😛 And, if you are writing at other online sites, I would like to keep up with everything fresh you have to post. Could you list the complete urls of your social pages like your linkedin profile, Facebook page or twitter feed?

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meet aaron

Association learning strategist & meetings coach. Founder & president of Event Garde. Passionate about cooking, running, blogging, old homes, unclehood & pet parenting (thanks to Lillie the pup).

meet kristen

Writer, editor, public relations professional. Digital content manager. Proud mom of three. Total word geek. Spartan for life.

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