Why Generations Matter (and Why They Don’t)

I am speaking on Monday, May 23rd at ASAE’s Financial Management Symposium. I’m the lunchtime keynote speaker, and my presentation is titled “Why Generations Matter, and Why They Don’t: the Business Realities of Diversity in the Workplace.” I was happy to be talking about generations, because I feel like the topic needs to be shaken up a bit, particularly in associations. When I was at the Great Ideas conference in Phoenix earlier this year, it seemed that in every session someone asked a question about generations. Specifically, the questions were clearly oriented towards a frustration with the “younger” generations out there, specifically generation X. How do we get them more involved? They’re loners. They are not joiners. They like video games, not human interaction. One person actually said that the “good news” is that research is indicating that the next generation (Millennials) actually are joiners, so if we can just “wait out” generation x…

I was disgusted! I joked with my colleague that I was going to propose a session for ASAE’s next annual meeting titled “Generation X: A Pox on Our Planet.” But what I perceived to be some mild generation X bashing was really not the problem. The problem is that people are very quick to take generalizations about generations and translate them instantly into strategies and tactics. They don’t question the generalizations and, more importantly, they don’t stop to investigate if the generalizations actually apply to the specific people who are relevant to their strategies and tactics. In the association context, if you want to make your products and services more relevant to different generations, don’t read an article about generation X and then redo you education sessions! You need to actually engage in conversation with your membership. Knowledge about generational differences can definitely be a guide to that conversation, but much more attention and energy needs to be put into the conversation itself. How frequently are you talking with them? How broad is your outreach? How do you know if they are just telling you what they think you want to hear?

I think organizations need to more consciously develop the “discipline of conversation.” There’s nothing wrong with knowledge, information, and content. Please gather as much of that as you can. But spend just as much time evaluating the quality of your conversations. Conversations show up everywhere: internal meetings, discussions with boards, all kinds of interactions with customers or members. Look at them with a new eye towards effectiveness. You can change the quality of these conversations (push hard against the “but that’s just how those things are done” argument), and you’d be surprised the impact it can have on your organization.


  1. 20.05.2005 at 11:12 am

    Exactly. Worried about engaging Gen X/Y/Z? Do you have any on your Board or other bodies that set the agenda for your oganization? No? I really believe that the association’s leadership demographic dramtically influences what gets created and therefore has to represent in some fashion all the demographics they are going after.
    As a Gen X’er myself, I’m little surprised people are stilling trying to ‘figure us out’. C’mon folks, we’ve been in the workforce for over a decade!
    On a related note, I’ve been referred to as an emerging leader by ASAE for the past 5 or 6 years, including the promotional material for the next annual meeting. I have my CAE. I chair a section Council. I’ve lead a 7-person association department for 5 years. Won a bunch of awards. When do I emerge? While I know it is meant with good intentions I do find it a bit patronizing.

  2. Jamie Notter
    24.05.2005 at 10:13 am

    I agree completely. The emerging leader concept has merit, but only if it were really based on an identified definition of “leader,” and how one actually emerges. The fact is, the term as it is used in the ASAE context is simply a euphemism for “young person,” and I’m beginning to fear that Boomers may consider Gen X “young” for the rest of our lives.