Delayed Adulthood: The Hidden Root of Your Young-Member Struggles

If you can't seem to attract enough young professionals to your association, maybe it's because there aren't enough young people in your industry.

Are you concerned about how to attract young professionals to join and engage with your association? If so, you’re certainly not alone in the association community.

But what if that concern is misplaced or, worse, too narrow in scope? Young professionals has become the term of art, our common language around the quest to understand and embrace the next generation. But young professional is a limiting phrase, in a subtle but crucial way. And it’s not about the word young. The problem is the word professional, because today’s young people are, increasingly, not professionals at all.

In August, the unemployment rate for 18- to 29-year-olds, including those who had given up looking for work, was 15 percent. And other studies have found that, even among college graduates, as many as half are underemployed or working in jobs unrelated to their college degrees. And they’re in debt up to their ears.

A hip tweet isn’t going to get that struggling 25-year-old intern a full-time job in your field.

So, if you ask one of your few young-professional members what people like her are looking for, there’s a good chance you’re going to get an answer that only represents maybe half her age group, the ones who have actually managed to find jobs that they like enough to envision as a career and that support them enough to enable them to join your association.

This is the reality of delayed adulthood. Temple University professor Laurence Steinberg noted in The New York Times in September that “today’s 25-year-olds, compared with their parents’ generation at the same age, are twice as likely to still be students, only half as likely to be married, and 50 percent more likely to be receiving financial assistance from their parents.” Millennials are living different lives in a different world than the generations that preceded them.

What to do? First, start thinking of this as an opportunity rather than a problem. As Celisa Steele at Tagoras pointed out last week, associations can and should be more involved in the lives of these not-quite-yet-adults: “Steinberg’s case for delayed adulthood then is also a case for more learning. Learning that keeps us young. It seems clear to me that the demand for lifelong learning opportunities will only increase, and higher ed, even if obvious, isn’t the only option. That’s where you and your organization come in.”

That’s the sort of big-picture thinking that seems missing, or at least ruled out, in a lot of talk about engaging young professionals. You can talk about social media tactics until you’re blue in the face, but a hip tweet isn’t going to get that struggling 25-year-old intern a full-time job in your field. Workforce development matters, and it’s bigger than your membership recruitment efforts. What is your association doing to help its industry create more jobs and grow the crop of new professionals to fill them?

It’s easy to be pessimistic about student membership programs, with their low conversion rates to full memberships. But student and youth-outreach programs are likely better viewed as loss leaders and as a strategic investment in your association’s future, not just a membership recruitment tactic. One of my favorite examples of a youth-outreach program is the American Welding Society’s traveling tractor-trailer exhibit that visits events like state fairs, auto races, and tradeshows to give kids a hands-on, interactive opportunity to learn about welding. Some other great examples of workforce development efforts at associations were highlighted by Janice Hamilton in “Developing a Future Workforce: Steps for a Successful Education Marketing Campaign,” in Associations Now Plus in May [ASAE login required].

It’s amazing how much words matter. If you reframe your mindset about attracting young professionals to, instead, attracting young people, the possible solutions and strategies will be wide open. Don’t limit yourself to trying to do more of what you already know.

How is your association approaching the challenge of attracting young people to your industry? Have you adjusted your thinking to accommodate for the growing trend of delayed adulthood among 20-somethings? Please share in the comments.


Joe Rominiecki

By Joe Rominiecki

Joe Rominiecki, manager of communications at the Entomological Society of America, is a former senior editor at Associations Now. MORE

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