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What Boards Need to Know About Gen Z
Each generation is shaped by the major events and conditions that occurred in their formative years. For Generation Z — those born between 1995 and 2015, although ranges vary slightly — the economy, technology, the environment, geopolitical events, among others have all had major influences on their generational personality. With the oldest members of Generation Z now moving into the workforce, it’s important for association boards to know the unique traits of this cohort so effective strategies can be developed to attract this generation to association membership and leadership.
 
What’s becoming clear, says David Stillman, a generational expert and author of the book, “Gen Z@Work: How the Next Generation is Transforming the Workplace,” is that this generation is very different from Millennials. Failure to recognize the differences could have negative consequences for associations down the road. He highlights some key characteristics of Gen Z that may help association boards to better understand and meet their needs.
 
Competitive, not Collaborative

The Great Recession of 2007-09 is one of the major events that shaped individuals from Gen Z, says Stillman, who is known as the Gen Z Guru. While Millennials came of age in times of economic prosperity in the 1990s, Gen Z grew up with one of the worst economic downturns since the Great Depression of the 1940s. The recession instilled in them a mindset of economic survival, having seen their parents and perhaps others family members struggle. It led to a greater sense of pragmatism and a drive to succeed. “Gen Z enters the workforce with a little more of a competitive attitude than we have seen in a long time,” says Stillman. This attitude is quite different from Millennials, who are traditionally more collaborative.
 
“That shift from collaborative-ness to competitiveness should be one of the first focal points for associations,” says Stillman, who speaks to associations with his Gen Z son, Jonah, about how to bridge generation gaps and bring in the youngest members. Whereas a collaborative generation is going to be more comfortable networking, socializing, sharing information, and working together for the greater good — a competitive generation will be more interested in personal success and gain, but also disruption and doing things differently. “So, associations that are working to make things collaborative for Millennials might have to change their mindset for Gen Z.”
 
Stillman believes this will be a tough transition for many associations, particularly those that are still trying to figure out how to engage Millennials. “Here’s this really collaborative generation but a lot of them see associations as a sort of an old boys’ club,” Stillman says. Some associations started peer groups for young professionals, but even that, while well-meaning, may be seen as silo-ing this group outside the decision makers.
 
Going Phigital

Another key characteristic of Gen Z is how completely comfortable they are in the digital world. “Whereas other generations, including Millennials, blur the line between the physical and digital, Gen Z is the first generation that really sees no line at all between the two,” says Stillman. “They live in what we call a phigital world” — a portmanteau of physical and digital. For example, many in Gen Z see the same value in logging on to a virtual meeting as they would attending an in-person event.  
 
Associations should consider this when developing event strategies. “It’s a generation that doesn’t necessarily see lines on where we gather — whether I log on or whether I walk into a ballroom — it's sort of one and the same,” Stillman says. Thus, the concept of everyone coming together once a year is not going to be nearly enough of a value proposition.
 
One of the challenges, says Stillman, will be staying relevant with events — both physical and digital — year-round. Many associations are already moving in this direction, but it will be even more critical with Gen Z. Also, Stillman points out that individuals in his son’s cohort are technologically savvy and sophisticated, so associations that make the best use of technology in their programs and services will have a competitive edge. “It’s not enough just to have technology, they expect that,” says Stillman. “It’s more about who has been the most sophisticated with it. Who is using it smart and using it well.” Technology for technology’s sake won’t cut it.
 
Hyper Customization

Gen Z is a generation that is used to hyper customization. It started with customizing their profiles and preferences on social media to create a personal brand and it extends to how they consume media (i.e., creating a playlist instead of buying a CD), how they shop, and even how they view college. In his book, Stillman notes that 73 percent of Gen Z students said colleges should allow students to design their own course of study and major. This attitude also extends to the workforce, as 56 percent of those in Gen Z would rather write their own job description than be given a generic one. Recruiters from companies like PricewaterhouseCoopers recognize this and are posting jobs based on the skills needed, not the job title, and are willing to create customized career paths for this generation.
 
So, what does this mean for associations? It means it will be important for associations to find ways to customize their programs, events, and even their outreach. One-size-fits-all approaches likely won’t work. Regarding outreach, Stillman recommends peer-to-peer marketing. Members of Gen Z look to their peers for advice, seeking out information from friends or contemporaries on social media. Stillman recommends that associations use their younger members to help with recruiting and outreach to their peers. “They want to see themselves in the association,” says Stillman. “If they see themselves in the association and in a prominent role, they are more likely to join.”
 
Don’t Lump Them in with Millennials

Because of the differences between them and other generations, Gen Z individuals don’t necessarily want to be lumped into a young professionals’ peer group, says Stillman. They want to be given an opportunity to have a broader impact. Stillman believes they can truly make a difference, particularly in the areas of digital, social media, and technology. “I would get them involved in your association’s strategic discussions. A lot of what you need to know, they know,” he says. “I'd be saying not ‘we’d like you to join,’ but rather ‘we really need you,’” Stillman says. “Let them know you’ve got a role for them to play and that they are going to have some autonomy to make changes.”
 
The good news is that, as a competitive generation, the value of joining an association for Gen Z is very clear. Like the last competitive generation, Baby Boomers, Gen Z will join an association if they see the benefits and how it can help them further their careers. “A competitive generation is looking for ways to get ahead,” says Stillman. “This makes the value proposition of joining an association really strong.” But association leaders will have to think strategically when it comes to recruiting.
 
“I'm very concerned that associations haven't been able to attract Millennials as well as they should have — especially considering how collaborative they are. But my bigger concern will be that associations look at everyone under 30 and just group them all together,” says Stillman. “If you treat those in Gen Z like Millennials, then you’re already behind the mark with that generation. You’ve got to be proactive in getting to know what makes Gen Z unique.”
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JULY/AUGUST 2019 EDITION
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Board Forward is published 10 times a year by SmithBucklin, the association management and services company more organizations turn to than any other. SmithBucklin has served volunteer board members for 70 years.

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