Association Forum of Chicagoland

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FORUM MAGAZINE – December 2004

Just Like Me (sort of): A Different Take on Generation X

It may be easier than you think to demystify the Generation X and Generation Y beings who have wandered into the cross-hairs of your marketing scope. Don't be put off by the multiple tattoos and body piercings, the perpetually unlaced shoes or the low-slung pants challenging the pull of gravity. Think back to your twenty-something days, and you may see a 21st century version of you. Here is a conversation between David M. Patt, CAE, 51, CEO of Chicago Area Runners Association and Colleen Jesse, 28, administrative manager of the organization.

DMP: I'm bombarded with anecdotes about Gen X peculiarities, and they resurrect memories of my own coming-of-age. Let's compare notes.

CJ: I never realized how much the topic of my generation was discussed, analyzed and dissected. We're not the slackers that many have labeled us. Jobs were not waiting for us as we graduated college. We learned to adapt to the ever-changing world and rely more on ourselves to get what we wanted out of life. We want success in our careers and to make the world a better place – all at the same time.

DMP: Sounds familiar. We were sometimes called lazy because we took time to "find ourselves" rather than find jobs. We wanted to change the world more than we cared about making a lot of money. We sought careers that satisfied us and often had to create those opportunities ourselves.

CJ: We've been called cynical, which may be somewhat true, because of the scandals we have seen in government and corporations. We question those in power and ask, "Why?" We question what is already set in place and ask, "Why do we do it that way? Is there a way to do it better?"

DMP: Déjà vu! Our motto was "Question Authority." We shunned our parents' values of loyalty, patriotism, hard work and obedience. Many of us marched against the Vietnam War, protested the military draft, and jumped into the budding environmental movement. We advocated grassroots, participatory democracy as an alternative to machine politics and were the first generation to practice gender equality.

CJ: We want our work to be meaningful and seek organizations and companies that coincide with our values. We are willing to work hard, but also want to work on our own terms. We saw our parents downsized and pushed into early retirement, and learned that we must be our own self-promoters. We seek out new challenges and are self-motivated. We want to work with others as a team, but don't want to report to a boss on every detail.

DMP: Our parents toiled unquestioningly for their bosses. We wanted to do everything our own way. We didn't like taking orders – and still don't. Maybe that's why so many of us sought leadership positions in associations, government, business, law firms, etc. We relish the challenges and savor the control we have over our work environment. Admittedly, we were taught to be individuals, not team players.

CJ: We believe there is more to life than work, and don't value job loyalty.

DMP: Same here. We wanted jobs that we liked and that mattered – and we didn't feel bound to one employer for our entire careers. We embraced flextime and sought careers that accommodated, or were built upon, our leisure interests. After all, if you got paid for what you liked to do, the work wasn't drudgery – and there would be no need to retire, because you'd already be doing what you enjoyed.

CJ: We are in full swing with the information age. We love our cell phones, DVD players, laptops, MP3 players, Palm Pilots, digital cameras, and of course, the Internet. We communicate more with friends through e-mail, instant messages, and text messaging and rarely call someone on their land line (except when dialing Mom and Dad). We are able to adapt well to new software and updates with technology.

DMP: We may not have had as many new gizmos, but we welcomed technological innovations – stereophonic records, cassette tapes, boom boxes, dry paper copying, push-button telephones, answering machines, faxes. Sounds ancient, but these were once cutting-edge.

CJ: We are waiting longer to get married – until our later 20's or early 30's. We're cautious because of high divorce rates. We frequently live together before marriage. The Internet has changed dating. We'll meet people through online dating services and 3-minute dating at bars. We give out our e-mail address instead of phone number.

DMP: We enjoyed a singles lifestyle well into adulthood, often living on our own or with an unmarried partner, an option never considered by our parents – especially our mothers. We met at bars and parties or were "fixed up" by mutual friends.

CJ: Though your claim to technological parity is a bit lame, we do have quite a few similarities. Our respective environments may account for the major differences in our habits. Now that you think you're "tuned in" to our thinking, here are some strategies you should consider:

1. Get Personal

Communication to your members, whether it's through an e-mail, a letter, or a postcard, should include their name. No one wants to read, "Dear Member." The message tends to get lost through a mass mailing. Members want to feel like you are talking directly to them and know who they are. Use the information you have about your members in order to target their specific needs and interests.

2. Make it Quick

We are bombarded with messages everyday, and have a short attention span. Don't overload brochures, ads and your Web site with tons of copy. We are very visual and respond better to pictures and graphics than to text. Keep it short, sweet, and to the point. Humor and irony are great if you can do it well. We value our time and don't want to waste it on things that don't matter to us or we don't have a need for.

3. What are the Benefits?

In other words, "What's in it for me?" It's a value question, which has become associated with Generation X. (Your generation asked "How is it relevant?"). It may sound selfish, but it's definitely a question that organizations need to be able to answer right away when marketing to the younger generation. Your organization may have a great mission statement and be doing wonderful work, but that's not the selling point to the younger crowd. We want to know what we'll get out of it and how it will make life better. If that does not come across right away, then you've lost us.

4. Technology is King

Do not get caught behind the technology curve. You will miss out on members this way. We grew up in the information age, and we happily apply new types of technology to our lives everyday. Whenever there is a new gadget, we like to know about it and how to use it. A Web site that is interactive and offers special tools is a great way to attract and maintain younger members.

5. Seek New Avenues

It has been said that if you do what you've always done, you'll keep getting what you've always gotten – or in many cases you'll do worse. This can be applied if you are using the same marketing strategy to target new and younger members. Since it seems that nothing is constant except change, your marketing plan must be updated and revamped on a regular basis. Many times this involves incorporating new technology and finding the element of "fun." Fun will always be appealing to younger generations. While one's definition of fun varies, it often involves social gatherings of individuals within your age group.

6. Know Expectations

If you don't know your target audience's expectations, more likely than not you will fail to meet them. Find out what they are looking for. Great service is usually expected. "Loyalty is dead" is a common phrase linked to Generation X. While it is important to attract new members to an organization, it is even more crucial to know how to keep them. Knowing what they expect from the onset will further assist you in keeping the younger generation involved with your association.

DMP: We've learned so much over the years that we think we're smarter than everyone else (especially you). We know we have to follow your advice, though, and look at the world from your perspective. Just tell us – how do you keep those pants from falling down?

Contact David M. Patt, CAE, at; Contact Colleen Jesse at

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