This article was published in the Winter 2022 issue of The Executive Magazine, the official publication of the California Society of Association Executives (CalSAE).
If asked about my generational identification at the beginning of this century, the response would have been immediate and enthusiastic. Born in 1968, I have been designated as a member of so-called "Generation X," the first alphabetically-labeled generation group, which begins with people born in either 1961 or 1965, depending on whom you ask. Fixing the endpoint for "Generation X" is a completely different question, however, one without a consistent answer.
This limitless flexibility in drawing generational boundaries (boundaries that are considerably more flexible for the groups that follow "Generation X") is just one of the myriad problems that led me to reject both my own categorization and the entire notion of generational thinking itself. In 2019, I wrote a two-part (Part I and Part II) series about the limits of generational orthodoxy to offer a contrarian perspective that confronted the association community’s total and troubling embrace of these ideas. The purpose of this article is to issue a direct challenge to staff, voluntary decision-makers, and other contributors throughout our community to help bring the use of generational orthodoxy in associations to an immediate end.
GENERATIONAL LABELS ARE MEANINGLESS
My 2019 series described generational thinking as "flawed," but as I have since learned, this critique did not go nearly far enough. In a piece for The Washington Post in July 2021, University of Maryland sociologist Philip Cohen makes clear that, "[g]eneration labels, although widely adopted by the public, have no basis in social reality." An October 2021 article in The Atlantic, written by Joel Pinsker, describes generational labels as "a figment of our collective imagination." That same year, Cort Rudolph, associate professor of industrial and organizational psychology at Saint Louis University [MO] went further in an article for the digital magazine, Psyche, arguing that "…the idea of generations is really a modern form of snake oil – an easy way to explain the ills that plague organisations, institutions and society as a whole."
Read these words again: No basis in social reality. A figment of our collective imagination. A modern form of snake oil.
Far from casual criticisms that can be easily dismissed, these observations are unambiguous and brutal repudiations of generational labels, and impossible for association decision-makers to ignore. Unfortunately, throughout my 30+ years working in our community, I have watched as boards, CEOs, and other association contributors repeatedly used orthodox beliefs about various generational groups as the foundation for thinking and action related to meetings, membership, professional development, and many other aspects of organizational operations, strategy, and value creation. As The Turbulent Twenties enter their fourth year, however, we cannot let this continue. Instead, association decision-makers need to develop and sustain the practice of surfacing, questioning, and discarding generational orthodoxy at every opportunity.
GENERATIONAL ORTHODOXY IS DETRIMENTAL
My 2019 articles expressed concerns not only about the inconsistent boundaries used to define various generational groups but also how these labels make it easier to ignore deeper complexities in the human beings they seek to aggregate, and denigrate everyone to whom they are attached. To this list of concerns, let me add three more reasons why generational orthodoxy is detrimental to the present and future of associations.
- Generational orthodoxy expects conformity. When associations apply generational labels to explain their stakeholders’ thinking and behaviors, it sets the misguided expectation that everyone within those specific categorizations will conform to their assigned descriptors. This artificial certainty allows decision-makers to fall back on reflexive assumptions such as "Generation Y aren’t joiners" or "Association volunteering is a generational thing!" But as Joel Pinsker writes, generational labels "flatten out the experiences of tens of millions of very different people, remove nuance from conversations, and imply commonality where there may be none." Instead of pretending that stakeholders will conform to their orthodox expectations, association decision-makers must bring humility and curiosity to the work of building an empathic understanding of their stakeholders’ uniqueness as human beings.
- Generational orthodoxy emphasizes relevance. The continued investment in generational orthodoxy by association decision-makers feeds another sacrosanct yet detrimental orthodox belief: the focus on relevance as the strategic endgame for their organizations, or what I call "the relevance fallacy." [See above] Building on the expectation of conformity, boards often opine on how to make their associations’ value offers more "relevant," especially to under-40 stakeholders, using erroneous generational orthodoxies such as "we need more social media to attract younger people" or "Gen Z doesn’t want to work hard." Setting aside the damaging futility of the relevance fallacy itself, according to Professor Cohen, most "[g]eneration descriptors are either embarrassing stereotypes or caricatures with astrology-level vagueness." To increase their surface area of attraction, associations should focus instead on learning with their youngest stakeholders about how they can collaborate to make a purposeful and beneficial impact on both their fields and the broader world.
For more background on the relevance fallacy, you can read three blog posts (Part I, Part II and Part III) I published in 2015 on the Mid-Atlantic Society of Association Executives [MASAE] Blog.
- Generational orthodoxy enables hypocrisy. As I have previously written, generational orthodox beliefs are frequently used to criticize or mock younger stakeholders. (By now, we have all heard enough quips about Millennials and avocado toast to last a lifetime.) Among the reasons for this active derision may be, as Professor Rudolph writes, the "… common misconception that members of younger generations are more narcissistic than members of older generations." Association boards, the vast majority of which are composed primarily of people 40 and over, often buy into this generational orthodoxy by expressing views such as "young people think they know everything" or "the newer generations are so entitled." At the same time, I have also heard association directors and officers say that "young people will save the world," an obligation with which my now much-older "generation" was once tasked as well. Not only must association boards reject such palpable hypocrisy, they also should make the ethical and moral choice to stand up for their successors’ futures today.
IT IS TIME TO END GENERATIONAL ORTHODOXY IN ASSOCIATIONS
Despite the obvious difficulties, I want to renew my challenge to you and all association stakeholders to contribute to achieving this important outcome. Since every transformative effort begins with individual action, here are three steps you can take to begin thinking and acting beyond these increasingly toxic orthodoxies and make it safe for others to do the same:
- Stop immediately. Remember that generational labels, descriptors, and orthodoxies are not real. Why continue to hold on to them? Why repeat them and extend their influence? Most importantly, why integrate them into your decision-making? I made the decision to stop, and you can too.
- Gather evidence. The linked resources in this article provide compelling evidence and perspectives in support of ending generational orthodoxy. I urge you to review them as part of an intentional discovery process to gather additional evidence, scrutinize your orthodox beliefs, and strengthen your arguments.
- Push back. You can help your association develop its practice of challenging generational orthodoxy. Listen carefully for the presence of these orthodox beliefs in your association’s internal conversations and stakeholder communications, and identify opportunities to push back (respectfully but firmly) against the harm created by generational orthodoxy.
An important thought for all association decision-makers to keep front and center as The Turbulent Twenties move forward is that there are no guarantees their organizations will have the opportunity to thrive over the long term. The radical uncertainty, volatility, and risk of "the discontinuous next" unleashed by the COVID-19 pandemic and its follow-on consequences are just getting started. Adapting to these unforgiving conditions and shaping better futures demands nothing less than the full inclusion of under-40 stakeholders in our organizations, something we have no hope of achieving unless we can end our use of generational orthodoxy.
Jeff De Cagna FRSA FASAE, executive advisor for Foresight First LLC in Reston, Virginia, is an association contrarian, foresight practitioner, governing designer, stakeholder and successor advocate, and stewardship catalyst. In August 2019, Jeff became the 32nd recipient of ASAE’s Academy of Leaders Award, the association’s highest individual honor given to consultants or industry partners in recognition of their support of ASAE and the association community. Jeff can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, on LinkedIn at jeffonlinkedin.com or Twitter @dutyofforesight.