Young Professionals: Just Looking for Some Friends

When school's over, we lose the regular opportunity to build connections and form friendships over shared experiences. That's a major need that associations ought to serve for their young members.

“I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12. Jesus, does anyone?”

You might recognize those words as the final line from the 1986 movie Stand By Me (one of my favorites). But even if you don’t, you can probably relate. Maybe you’re like me: Most of my best friends are people I’ve known since my grade-school and college years.

Many associations often underestimate how difficult it is to create a new network.

That’s common. In 2012, Alex Williams at The New York Times asked “Why Is It Hard to Make Friends Over 30?” Her exploration found a common theme about the transition from young adulthood to our early career years: “The days of youthful exploration, when life felt like one big blind date, are fading. Schedules compress, priorities change, and people often become pickier in what they want in their friends.” She also noted the conditions that sociologists see as the necessary ingredients for making friends: “proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other.”

That happens every day in school. Then we graduate, move away, get a job, and we essentially have to start fresh with a new crowd, but often in settings lacking the right conditions for friendships to form.

If you’re several years beyond your young professional days, maybe you’ve forgotten what that stage feels like. And, if you’re in the position of trying to encourage young professionals to join your association, maybe you can’t figure out why they don’t seem to find value in all the things that you know, in your veteran wisdom, they ought to find valuable.

This gap in perspectives was crystallized for me as I read “Engaging Young Association Members” [PDF], a white paper published by Association Laboratory in early April. One line in particular caught my eye, about how associations often miss the mark:

Underestimating the desire for experiences — Young professionals seek different experiences than more senior professionals. They place greater priority on social and peer-based learning because they are creating networks not managing networks. Many associations often underestimate how difficult it is to create a new network. [emphasis original]

We are indeed a culture that values experiences more than ever. Experientialism is the new materialism, according to James Wallman, author of Stuffocation: Why We’ve Had Enough of Stuff and Need Experience More Than Ever. But, crucially, we seek to share those experiences. It’s one reason why social media is so popular and powerful. Ideally, though, we can share those experiences in person, because that’s how deeper bonds are formed.

That’s why that line in the Association Laboratory white paper is so important. It captures the vital combination of experience and connection. For young professionals, forming bonds over shared experiences might be the most critical role an association can fill.

I’ve argued before that young professionals are busy just trying to find their place in the world. And some research has shown that they value symbolic benefits over tangible benefits from professional organizations and “may look to the profession to help them define who they are to both themselves and their employers.” But I hadn’t yet made the connection between these pursuits and the integral role played by social bonding over shared experiences.

The tough question, then, is how does an association serve that role? How can your association be the place where young professionals in your industry come to meet and bond and feel like they belong—both in their new careers and in the community of professionals around them?

My first suggestion is to stop leading with the term “networking opportunities.” We all know intellectually that networking is important, but no one really wants to “network.” You tell me I can come to your association and network, and I think of this:

Networking is vital, but it isn’t an experience. A learning event might be, though. Or a volunteer project. Or even a purely social gathering. (Just don’t call it “networking.”) In any case, it’s important for young professionals to make meaningful connections while doing meaningful work or having memorable experiences (or both).

Shifting your focus away from the purely professional to attract young people to your association might seem like a departure from your core mission. Particularly to your most senior, accomplished leaders, it might seem like a lot of fluff. But keep in mind that drawing young professionals to your community is just as much an investment in the future as in the here and now. If you can get your young professionals to build those important social bonds on your turf and associate your organization with a positive sense of connection, it will pay off in the long run.

Or, think of it this way. When I moved to Washington, DC, I knew about four people here. A few of us joined a kickball team because we wanted to meet others. So, once a week we played an elementary-school recess game under the shadow of the Washington Monument and then went to happy hour. Silly fun and games, of course, but I ended up meeting my future wife that way. (How’s that for ROI?) The point is, young professionals will turn somewhere to make friends and have fun. Why shouldn’t it be your association?

How is your association trying to give young professionals a chance to bond and share fun experiences with colleagues? Please share your ideas 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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