The Double-Edged Sword of “Young Professional”

Is the label “young professional” harmful or helpful? It probably depends on when and where it is used, according to a group of YPs who discussed its implications at ASAE’s NextGen Summit.

At the end of the day, I don’t know that it matters what we call ourselves or what our associations call us. … It probably matters, more than anything, what we do.

When you hear the words “young professional,” what images come to mind?

Depending on whom you ask this somewhat vague label may stir up positive or negative connotations, not to mention some confusion. What does young mean anyway? Is it 30 and under, 35 and under, 40 and under?

This was one of a series of topics discussed at the recent ASAE NextGen Summit in Reno, Nevada. Participants, who themselves would largely be classified as young professionals, debated whether the term is beneficial or detrimental and found that the answer is not clear-cut.

On the one hand …

The term is limiting: “It’s not inclusive to those new in the profession,” said Scott Wiley, FASAE, CAE, president and CEO, Ohio Society of CPAs. “You may be a young professional with seven years of experience in the association management profession, and you also may be a new association professional who doesn’t fit under the ‘young’ category because you have less experience, and we exclude them by virtue.”

Modifying professional with “young” can also create the idea that someone is not a full-fledged professional, or that YPs should be set to the side and made to wait their turns for senior-level positions in favor of more-experienced professionals. Several participants said that, at work, they want to be viewed simply as “professionals.”

On the other hand …

The label can be helpful for YPs when seeking out like-minded peers and professional development, especially within an association or the workplace.

“I think it works to our advantage when we’re networking, when we’re looking for opportunities,” said Melissa Walling, CAE, director, membership, Institute of Real Estate Management. “It kind of helps us to stand out because we are accomplished and we are younger—it helps us to stand out from our peers.”

There is solidarity in the term, said Tammy Barnes, state advocacy officer, American Psychological Association. “I really like it,” she said. “It ties me to my cohort.”

Whether viewed positively or negatively, the term “young professional” is just a label, and, as the saying goes, actions speak louder than words.

“At the end of the day, I don’t know that it matters what we call ourselves or what our associations call us. … It probably matters, more than anything, what we do,” said Paula Eichenbrenner, vice president for advancement, American Society for Nutrition.

This idea was echoed in a recent ASAE newsletter article [login required] in which two YPs shared their advice on rising above the label.

“There are young people out there who have thousands of great ideas but they don’t do a thing about them,” said Brandon Robinson, an assistant vice president at Easter Associates, Inc. “Sometimes you have to just be willing to do. I’m not saying go out there and do everything under the sun, but if you’ve got a great idea, be willing to take ownership of it. Be willing to do something about it.”

Another tip: Match your actions and professional demeanor for the position you want.

“If you act like a young professional, colleagues are going to treat you like one,” said Ashley Hodak Sullivan, chief operating officer at the New York State Trial Lawyers Association. “It’s that idea of playing the role until you are the role.”

Where do you fall in the debate? Do you think the term “young professional” is limiting or beneficial, or somewhat of both? Let us know in the comments.


Katie Bascuas

By Katie Bascuas

Katie Bascuas is associate editor of Associations Now. MORE

Got an article tip for us? Contact us and let us know!