The X, Y and Z of membership

Sarah Sladek

Sarah Sladek, founder of XYZ University.

We’re in the middle of a generational alphabet soup, a “perfect storm” as Sarah Sladek, founder of consulting company XYZ University, calls it.

You’ve probably heard of Generation X and Generation Y, but what about Generation Z?

As a Gen Xer, I’ve grown up listening to how our generation craves economic diversity and demands social justice.  And I’ve heard we strive for a work/life balance while defining our own careers. That’s nothing compared to Gen Y. Working on a college campus (my fulltime job is at Michigan State University) I see the wide-eyed, go-get-the-world naiveté of Gen Y every day.

But there’s another important group: Generation Z, otherwise known as the millennials. This is the same generation that may never enter a traditional office, that prefers Skype meetings and is most likely to be self-employed.

Unfortunately, the last thing on the minds of Xers, Yers and Zers is association membership.  So it’s time for organizations to undergo a major facelift, Sladek said. In her book, “The End of Membership as We Know It,” she outlines examples for moving membership models into the future.

“My book delves into the perfect storm: the culmination of economic decline, advancements in technology and demographic shifts,” Sladek said. “The combination of these three factors has changed membership. What worked in the past isn’t going to work anymore, and my book addresses what associations should do to stay relevant and meaningful in light of recent changes.”


Soon, the workforce will experience the largest historical turnover in human capital, she said. Baby boomers are retiring, but no one seems ready for the influx of new blood, new ideas and new technologies.

“I’m seeing associations make some critical mistakes. What they need to do is focus on their members. That may sound obvious, but I’m seeing associations catapult into panic mode and neglect their members,” Sladek said. “They try to draw in new members, pursue sponsorships to draw in revenue or start looking elsewhere for quick-fix solutions when there are many problems associations can solve right now. Focus on the members and the money will follow.”

If that doesn’t happen, in 10 years several associations could be extinct, she said. But don’t panic. Membership isn’t dead.  It’s just different. Associations can no longer count on members renewing simply because they’ve always belonged. Instead, members need to truly understand the value of membership – and this is tough competition when Google provides a plethora of free resources.

So now what? Associations need to provide better benefits and offer different membership models, such as tiered or online memberships.  And they need to build an online presence and encourage virtual networking.

It’s sort of like stocking up on bug spray for the summer. In researching for this post, I stumbled across a blog post Sladek wrote comparing Gen X to mosquitos. Like those pesky critters, we’re here to stay.

She wrote: “In work, Xers emphasize personal satisfaction as being the most important. Unlike the Boomer leaders, which focus on corporate progression and monetary reward, Gen X will lead with a focus on nurturing individuals, personal development, autonomy and work-life balance. Can you hear the mosquito? It’s buzzing loud and clear.”

According to Sladek, 36 percent of women now earn more than their spouses; Gen Xers are defining their own careers; and businesses are becoming increasingly global. But ask yourself: Is your association embracing any of these changing trends? How are you catering to the next two generations?

We Gen Xers are creating quite the buzz, but just think about the upcoming swarm of Ys and Zs. Are you ready?

6 Responses to “The X, Y and Z of membership”

  1. August 1, 2013 at 7:33 am

    Yes, membership implies one consistent value from the same organization over and over again. This is still possible, but more likely for many of us to find transitional value in several groups, and to move freely between them without “belonging” to any one of them. Partnerships, flexibility, and just-in-time delivery will capture more attention – and more revenue.

  2. August 2, 2013 at 8:15 am

    Societies and associations looking to retain members and grow must continually discover and seize opportunities to build a “community” of practice by increasing its relevance, strengthening its products & services portfolio, focusing on members’ needs, and delivering differentiated value. To build community, you must focus on the WHY your organization exists. As Simon Sinek says, “People do not buy WHAT you do, people buy WHY you do it”.

  3. October 6, 2014 at 2:30 pm

    Do you mind if I quote a few of your posts as long as I provide credit and sources back to your weblog?

    My blog is in the very same niche as yours and my users would really benefit from some of the information you provide here.

    Please let me know if this okay with you. Many thanks!

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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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