In the past year, 47% of associations reported a decline in total membership. Leaders are asking themselves: can we chalk this up to post-pandemic recalibration? Or are associations experiencing an existential crisis? 

In 2016, Millennials overtook Baby Boomers to become the largest generation in the workforce. Today, Millennials + Gen Z account for 40% of the working population in the United States. And yet, 2022 research suggests that association membership is still heavily skewed towards older generations. On average, 71% of an association’s member base is comprised of members over the age of 40. 

In order to turn numbers like these around, associations must learn how to understand and serve the next generation of professionals. Their needs, career goals, and expectations of member communities are completely different from those of older generations. Often noted as the first generations of digital natives, Millennials, and Gen Zers expect fast, digital-first, highly personalized experiences. And they don’t make concessions. If associations can’t meet those expectations, they won’t be able to capture the attention of these young, digital-savvy professionals. 

Why Can’t Associations Recruit Millennials & Gen Z?


1. You’re not meeting them where they are.

Many associations make the mistake of leaning on traditional recruitment methods when enticing younger generations. Marketing General’s 2022 Member Benchmarking Survey lists word-of-mouth, email and events as the most successful recruitment tactics identified by association leadership.

I wonder what members under the age of 40 would have to say about these tactics. They might tell you that while word of mouth is likely to sway them, career advice from Baby Boomers is woefully out of touch.

Young professionals today are building their careers across a multitude of social and professional channels. The network and find work on LinkedIn. They learn on Youtube and Upskill on Udemy. They get inspiration from TikTok and Instagram. They find community on Reddit and Facebook. These are the channels where young members might discover and connect with your association.

They won’t attend your events or join your mailing list unless you meet them where they are first. 

2. You aren’t supporting their nuanced career trajectories

It’s no secret that the corporate ladder is giving way to a professional jungle gym. Gone are the days of 30+ years working your way up through one organization.  There are more professional options than ever before - even in one professional discipline.

My partner, for example, is a PhD Chemist. He’s working towards a career in academia, but he could instead take his degree and work at a biotech startup, in a government advisory role, in patent law, as a grant writer and reviewer, as an expert witness in criminal trials and more. He may play many of these roles at the same time.  Hey American Chemical Society - are you prepared to help him navigate this wide breadth of options?

If your leadership is full of seasoned professionals who spent their entire careers at one organization, your association won’t be able to relate to what it’s like growing a young career in the 2020s. Your professional content and learning materials may be top notch, but it also needs to be discoverable according to the search parameters that young professionals need.

Which brings me to point #3:

3. You’re not creating the experiences they want.

The digital revolution is here. And it’s been here for years. The pandemic just cemented many of the habits that were already commonplace to younger generations.

This implies a new approach to many core association activities. Young members don’t want to engage in forced small talk at industry events and meetups. They are unlikely to attend your annual event just to catch up with other industry professionals. And their expectations of digital offerings are higher than ever before.

Younger generations are comparing their experience interacting with your association online to the experiences they have with the likes of Amazon, Spotify, Netflix, and others. Their tolerance for clunky interfaces, poor search experiences, and disorganized content is nonexistent.

And they crave options. Did you know that only 6% of associations report offering virtual membership options? What a missed opportunity for those hoping to entice young professionals.

And optionality isn’t just desirable when it comes to types of membership offers - it’s also critical when it comes to the way of experiencing those offers. The typical Gen Zer has an attention span of 8 seconds. Associations must understand how to translate their content into those formats that will capture attention before it’s gone. 

4. You haven’t proven the value matches the price point.

This idea is intrinsically linked to the last. If you can’t develop the experiences that young members crave, you can’t prove your value. Earlier I mentioned all of the channels that young professionals are using to build their careers. Many of those alternatives are free, and paid elements of those experiences are flexible, and linked directly to the value they provide.

For example, one can choose to pay for LinkedIn Premium for a fixed period while they are job searching. Or, one can choose to buy JUST those courses on Udemy or Skillshare that will help them upskill. 

Many associations still have inflexible memberships with a one price, all access model. But your young members likely don’t want it all. And they likely can’t afford it all either. Savvy associations will focus on linking membership to value, and creating options and bundles based on how that value translates to various could-be member cohorts.  

5. Your communications aren’t personalized.

Our team recently attended an association event where an invited speaker advised:

“keep sending emails - if they unsubscribe, do you really want them on your list?” 

Words can’t fully express how bad this advice truly is. Overly frequent, irrelevant emails will land you a one way ticket to spam folders everywhere. And it’s a sure-fire way to ensure that otherwise on-the-fence young professionals will never join your organization. 

Modern email communication should be segments, highly relevant, and infrequent. Your members are inundated with unimportant information all day long. Be the email they actually look forward to opening. Personalization is proven to improve open rates, sales, and overall engagement. Here’s proof.  

How to Start Attracting Young Members

A lot of what you’ve read here may feel overwhelming. My advice? Start small. Incremental steps towards digital transformation add up to big change.

Personalization is a great place to start. You won’t necessarily need team or tech overhauls to start personalizing your member touchpoints, but it will make a huge impact on overall member happiness. Get our 2022 Personalization at Associations report to learn more about modern member expectations around seamless digital experiences, and, get a handy checklist for implementing personalization at your organization.