The Ageless Question

In our continuing research on why people join, I recently came across an interesting scholarly article on the average number of memberships held in voluntary organizations based on a member’s age.

It sheds some interesting light on the ageless association questions of getting “younger” members and also on the generational influences on membership patterns.

To generate their analysis, the authors aggregated data from 12 national surveys done over a 20 year period – 1974 to 1994. After reviewing each survey, they concluded that the pattern of the relationship between age and number of membership held by an individual has not changed. In other words, different generations during this time frame did not display different joining patterns.

However, from this aggregated data, the researchers did find that the likelihood to be a member did follow an age pattern. Not surprisingly, the average number of membership held by an individual was lowest from ages 18 to 29 and also for those over age 70.

From age 18, the average number of membership held by an individual rose steadily to a peak at ages 40-44. However, when the study controlled “for gender, self-perceived health, education, work status marital status, presence of children in the household and race” there was an interesting shift in the data.

When controlling for these factors, the peak age of membership rose to 55-59 and remained high through age 85. So for example, those who remained healthy and employed, continued their memberships.

Finally, the study excluded union and church related memberships to see if these memberships impacted the age curve and it was determined that the age tendency were consistent with and without the inclusion of these membership categories.

What are the implications of this research on membership marketing?

I have two thoughts, but am interested in what you think

1. It may indicate that we worry too much about recruiting younger members. The research would indicate that the likelihood to join an association is associated with a season in life. Twenty year olds might never be big joiners.

2. The research indicates that different generational groups did not display different joining tendencies. The same age groups that joined in the early 80”s as joined in the late 90’s.

The article this information was drawn from follows.

The Effects of Membership in Church-Related Associations and Labor Unions on Age Differences in Voluntary Association Affiliation

The Gerontologist
Vol. 41, No. 2 250-256
Jon Hendricks, PhD, and Stephen J. Cutler, PhD


Matt Baehr said...

Tony - Great find. I think tyou just summed up my take from my earlier post that we may be worrying too much about the generational thing. You just said it much better than I did!

Tony Rossell said...

Matt -- Thanks for your feedback. Your comments on your blog related to the generational issues motivated me to pull the post together from the article I was holding. You and I are in tune on this issue. By the way, will you be at Annual and attending Ben's get together? Tony

Ben Martin, CAE said...

Good. Can we put this issue to bed yet? The last three surveys I've read (or read about) on generations suggest that lower membership numbers amongst generations X and Y is a function of age, not generation. Can we move on now?

Dennis McDonald said...

I'm inclined to agree with the conclusions here except for one caveat. That is, the opportunities that are available today to potential and actual association members to interact with other professionals are significantly more varied than in the past. We don't really know what the impact down the road will be on the current crop of younger professionals in terms of their interest in joining and staying with professional associations.

Traditional association programs such as conferences, publications, and professional networking have more competition than ever before. Professionals of all ages can locate and interact professionally and socially with other professionals through an increasing number of electronic means, some of which are sponsored by institutions and organizations that may only indirectly represent the interests of the association

I am referring partly to the increasing use of social networks and social networking technologies. Facebook and Linkedin are just the most visible examples of the dozens of commercial services and applications that are evolving that enable organizations to re-cast how they communicate with and relate to customers, clients, and members.

Facebook has itself spawned a number of sub-groups that are dealing with professional issues. In some cases, associations (such as the AAAS) have established groups within Facebook. Just this week, the Washington chapter of the Project Management Institute (PMI) established a sub-group within the professional networking organization Linkedin. Vendors of social networking software are actively targeting associations as potential customers for social networking applications delivered through a variety of delivery channels.

To what extent are opportunities for social and professional interaction actually "competing" with traditional associations? And to what extent are younger professionals more receptive to these other means for interacting with other professionals?

That remains to be seen. As a consultant active in social networking and social media adoption, and as someone who was once extremely active in association activities, I firmly believe that associations can productively use such technologies as a way to provide even greater value to members.

Associations don't need to limit the targeting of new technology and network-based services to younger members and prospects. But definitely, the career stage and professional motivations of members need to be taken into account when developing programs that take advantage of these technologies. For example, younger folks starting out in a profession have different needs from an Old Guard that quietly runs things from behind the scenes.

So while I agree that age related patterns for association activity may not have changed much in the past, I think there's a distinct possibility that we are in for a significant shift in professional networking and communications in the future, and we may already be witnessing some of these changes. I fear that, if associations fail to adopt these newer approaches for engaging with members and other professionals, continued erosion in membership applications and renewals may result.

I addressed some of these issues in my blog post "Are Social Networking and Social Media Threats or Opportunities for Professional Associations?" ( If anyone would like to discuss these issues, please email me at I’m also active in Linkedin, Linkedin Bloggers (a Yahoo! group), and a variety of Facebook groups that deal with related issues.

Dennis McDonald
Alexandria, Virginia

Tony Rossell said...

Dennis -- Excellent comments. I would agree that associations need to evolve with the technology in order to maintain the engagement they will have with rising professionals. I do find it encouraging that groups have effectively adopted the web, e-mail communicaitons, and webinars over the last decade. Tony

Greg said...

Dennis-- Great post!

Ben -- Yes, we can put the issue to bad as far as joining. A fair question wold be:

"Is there a difference in how the unique generations define value?"

I believe there is and I beleive it is partly based on the how the difference generations consume and process information and that, I believe is is an even bigger challenge and a topic we will be discussing a great deal in the near future.

Jeff said...

I think Dennis's comments isolate the key issue here, which is one of participation and not membership. In a recent session I led at ASAE & The Center's Marketing and Membership conference, I asked this question to a room full of association executives:

What is the relationship between membership and participation?

To be honest, I don't recall getting a solid answer to the question, and I believe that is because this kind of strategic question is rarely posed in our organizations.

My point is simply that while Gen Xers or Gen Ys may join our organizations because they are expected to do that by an employer or to maintain a license or credential, I don't think we can be comfortable expecting the same level of participation when equally good and better alternatives for self-directed engagement and social network building are now readily available on our desktops, laptops and mobiles. I also think we should begin to reconsider whether metrics like member retention are all that meaningful when it is participation that really matters.

So I disagree with Matt and Ben that we can now stop worrying about "the generational thing." There are real mindset differences among the generations and while these differences are not the only factors influencing the decision-making of our current and future members, non-members and never-members, it is in our best interests to maintain our awareness, build our understanding and monitor their shifts in thinking for the foreseeable future.

Ben Martin, CAE said...

I'm not sure how you can isolate participation from retention. Sorry to get all 7MOS on you, but retention drives the resource engine that facilitates participation, and participation increases likelihood of retention. They are just two sides of the same coin.

Dennis McDonald said...

Ben, I agree with you that everything is related and you can't really isolate these factors. I am puzzled by Jeff's comment about the executives being nonplussed by his question about the relationship between participation and retention. Is that because the connection is tenuous, or is it because people define these terms so differently?

Dennis McDonald
Alexandria, Virginia USA

Peter Turner said...


Great post and follow up comments.

I offer two of my own.

In my experience, some IMO's do have a serious "pipeline" problem. They cant get enough younger members to join versus the older ones who retire. These specific situations were due to sharper competition for the "practitioner" segment of that age group and not being able to get enough "practical" outcome oriented products or services to meet a real-life need.

Secondly, the competition for this age group is better served by those who offer more collaborative customer engagement than we traditionally do in associations.

For instance, Forrester Research offers the following. Customer created content is becoming a significant tool in a marketer’s arsenal. Among North American adults and youth (ages 13-21), Forrester found dramatic customer participation among the following sources of online content for adults and youths:

* Customer product ratings and reviews (71% adult/81% youth)
* For sale listings with seller ratings (69%/77%)
* Online classified ads (57%/66%)
* Message board posts (57%/71%)
* Weblogs (55%/67%)
* Peer-generated and peer-edited reference information (49%/68%)
* Peer-posted event listings (46%/71%)

Such activities not only enhanced sales by sites that offered them but also boosted their search rankings since the search engines can pick up the content of the reviews. Comparing results from other types of reviews from print or direct mail, online product reviews by customers were trusted more by consumers. TV reviews were only slightly more trusted.

A Jupiter Research study found that consumers are referring to online reviews twice as much as in their previous study.

To this again my experience is that associations of all sizes tend to be challenged by the "not invented here" pov that restricts what collaborative opportunities they can offer their members.

This is and will be a problem for younger professionals.

BCG completed an interesting study on open source hackers to determine their motivation for volunteering their time and energy. Interestingly, they found it wasnt to kill off Redmond but to pursue their creative impulse. The challenge here is that these folks dont tend to want to waster their time in meetings discussing bylaws, policy changes and the like. They want to use their talent more constructively. Good news is that volunteerism has never been better just in a different context.

If assns dont offer that then they will ply it elsewhere as Dennis suggests.

Peter Turner

Tony Rossell said...

Thanks everyone for this dialog. I will throw out two additional thoughts.

First, I agree that the way we will particpate in the future will continue to change. How people communciate and participate has been changing throughout human history. The changes may just be more rapid now. How successfully associations adapt to these changes will influence their continued viability.

Secondly, we have done some client data analytics research that shows a direct coralation between participation and retention. Members who the data shows as participating have much higer renewal rates. So these things can be linked. I will attempt to dig the research out in the next day or so and put it into a post. Tony

Jeff said...

Ben and Dennis, regarding your comments above, for me this is a question of measuring what we value, rather than simply valuing what we measure. We use a member retention metric as a standard indicator of association health but it is a superficial one.

It goes without saying that there is a relationship between retention and participation but it is not a constant, i.e., not everyone renews because they participate. In fact, in most associations, most people renew without participating. If they didn't, we would never talk about "checkbook" members.

My point is that going forward we should do more to develop metrics that capture better information on different types of participation that use different tools and involve different levels of intensity. And I continue to argue that if Gen X and Gen Y have superior alternatives for participation available to them through means other than their associations, they may join and they may stick around, but we won't be capturing their ideas, energy, passion and imagination, and that is what we our organizations and our community really needs. This is why we can't put the generational conversation to bed.

Dennis, just to clarify, my question at the conference was on the relationship between membership and participation, not retention and participation. Related questions, to be sure, but not the same.

Ben Martin, CAE said...

This is a very frustrating debate because the terms we're using are so squishy. What is participation? What is engagement? If definitions for these terms could be agreed upon, this would be a much more fruitful conversation.

@Jeff: I'm approaching this with the assumption that retention is one of the bedrocks for association engagement. I don't understand why the profitable business of member retention is deemed superficial? In what sense is liquid capital superficial? I see cash as a foundational element in a hierarchy of association needs, and member retention is super way to get it.

Tony Rossell said...

I have tried to bring some real data to this conversation in my post last night. Why don't we move the conversation to the July 30th post?