The Looming Retirement Crisis

No, I don’t mean the typical “Boomers haven’t saved enough!” wailing, although that’s certainly likely to be a problem. I mean the hourglass problem.

As in, there are somewhere between 72-79 million Baby Boomers, and there are a lot fewer Gen-Xers. I’ve seen figures ranging from 39-49 million, and I find it telling that while it’s easy to get a definitive answer to “how many Boomers are there?” it is not easy to get the same information on Gen-X.

Much like we hear today in regards to Millennials, in the early/mid-90s, associations were freaking out about Gen-X not joining. “It’s the damn Internet! Websites will be the death of us!” Uh, no. Turns out, it was mostly a life stage issue. As in, “I’m 25, and if you’ve seen Slackers, you realize that there’s a good chance that I not only haven’t settled on a career, I’m not even sure if I’m coming back in to THIS job tomorrow.” Sure enough, as Xers started to settle on careers, we also started to join associations.

But – and this but is important – we’re approximately 50% smaller as a generation than the Boomers that preceded us. What that means is that, even if we join and participate at the exact same rate at Boomers, associations are potentially facing a membership and leadership (both paid and volunteer) crisis.

But – and this is also an important but – it’s probably temporary. Coming up behind Gen-X is the even larger than the Boomers (80+ million) Millennial generation. Who are currently in their “I’m 25 and I’m not settled” phase. The good news is, due to various generational characteristics (like their team orientation, interdependence, connectedness, and community-mindedness), the future looks pretty good for civic and professional engagement, volunteering, networking, involvement.

So there’s probably no reason to panic, but associations are still going to need to bridge that gap created by the Gen-X waist of the hourglass. How?

Reach up, and reach down.

Plenty of associations are currently focusing on young professionals, with discounted or even free dues, mentoring programs, outreach, networking opportunities, leadership programs, educational programs, creating set-aside seats in governance for young professionals, reaching out to students in their professions or industries, career services, etc. And all that’s important. This is a generation that is likely to be more loyal and respectful of authority than their cranky Gen-X elders, which means bringing them in and giving them a place early is likely to pay good dividends.

The area that I see associations ignoring, though, is reaching up to retired and retiring members. They are a huge untapped resource for associations. Boomers are, generationally, people who will support things for the common good, at least far more so than cynical Gen-X. They are retiring more gradually and partially than previous generations. They are living longer, healthier post-retirement lives.

In retirement, or at least semi-retirement, they have some tremendous assets that associations can use. They have time, wide networks, and expertise. They also have less money than at the height of their careers, and less need to stay up to date on all the latest in their professions or industries.

How might that play out in keeping them engaged to help associations over the Gen-X dip, until the Millennial cavalry arrives?

Boomers make great mentors. Not so much to Gen-Xers (remember, we’re the “kids these days are no good” generation), but definitely to Millennials, who are just starting out in their careers and who are inclined to like, trust, and want to work with their elders. And they like to share their expertise in new technologies. Is your association running a cross-mentoring program to match experienced Boomers with early career Millennials, who can, in turn, help those Boomers learn tech?

Boomer make great fundraisers. Retaining elements of their youthful idealism, they do believe in causes. And they have the time and networks to do some dialing/visiting for dollars, or even contribute themselves as major donors. What Big Idea projects does your association wish you had the funds to try? Who among your long-term members can help you get there?

Boomers have great experience and institutional knowledge. They can teach courses on key issues in your industry or profession, or even help prepare the coming generations for volunteer leadership roles in the association. Some might provide that expertise for free, and some might appreciate a little extra cash for developing and teaching high-level courses in your field.

What other ways can you think of to engage your “elder statesman” members to benefit your profession, your industry, your association, your membership, and your young professionals?

I think finding good answers to that question will be one of the major keys to association financial health in the coming decade.

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