Millennials – those born between 1980 and 2000 – are now officially the largest generation in history, and these more than 82 million under-35s likely hold the key to the future of our scholarly societies and associations. But how do they differ from previous generations – Generation X (1965 – 1980), the Baby Boomers (1945 – 1965), and the Silent Generation (pre-1945)?
Following on from the publication of our original Membership Matters survey, which I wrote about recently, Wiley has now completed a deeper demographic analysis of the data, looking in more detail at what members (and non-members) value about society membership, why they do or don’t join/renew, which activities they are most likely to take part in, their engagement level, and more. Of the 14,000 people who responded to the survey, roughly one third each are Millennials (31%), Generation X-ers (35%), and Baby Boomers (31%); the remaining 3% are from the Silent Generation.
Respondents are most likely to work in a university of college (41% of Silents and Boomers, 45% of Generation X, 31% of Millennials), though Millennials are almost as likely to work in a hospital (29%). The Silent Generation members are most likely to have a PhD (60%), compared with 45% and 44% for Baby Boomers and Generation X, and just 17% for Millennials, many of whom are presumably still studying. Interestingly, the highest number of respondents in the three older generations came from North America (Silents 39%, Boomers 39%, and Generation X 23%) and Europe (35%, 28%, 33% respectively), with only 25% of Silents, 33% of Boomers, and 43% of Generation X respondents from the rest of the world – but for Millennials, the numbers are almost reversed, with just 40% from North American and Europe.
So what do the data tell us about society membership by generation? One thing that struck me is that, while it’s certainly the case that there are differences, these aren’t necessarily as significant as I would have thought. For example, the top reason for joining a society – irrespective of age – is the quality of its research-based content, although the Silent Generation values this most (a rating of 1.77 where 1 is highest) while Millennials value it least (2.05). Similarly, the top reason given by all age groups for renewing– 44% of Silents and Generation X-ers, 40% of Baby Boomers, and 37% of Millennials – is that they feel connected to the community. In terms of the activities they value, at number one for all age groups is reading the association’s publication(s). (Interestingly, however, while voting in the association’s elections is in the top five for the three older generations, participating in the association’s public social media network(s) only makes it into the top five activities for Millennials.) And in terms of satisfaction levels, while Millennials are less satisfied with their society than other generations, they are still more likely to be satisfied than not – 66% of Milliennials are satisfied or very satisfied, compared with 68% of Generation X-ers, 77% of Baby Boomers, and 79% of Silents.
Not that there’s any cause for complacency, however – breaking down the numbers by generation clearly demonstrates that there is a downward trend in scholarly society membership. Less than half (48%) of all Millennials who responded belong to an association (not counting the 8% who are unsure!), compared with 82% of respondents from the Silent Generation, 83% of Baby Boomers, and 73% of Generation X-ers. And although this may be in part because younger researchers are still studying and may not yet be committed to a career in research, it’s still a cause for concern. And the fact that, while a majority of those who do belong are satisfied with their society, there’s a 13% difference in satisfaction levels between the oldest and youngest association members certainly requires addressing. The decline in NetPromoter score by age – with only 32% of Millennials and 35% of Generation X-ers being active promoters for their societies, compared with 45% and 43% for the Silent Generation and Baby Boomers respectively – is also worrying.
Despite the similarities by age group, there are also some clear differences, especially around why people choose to join an association in the first place. The most common reason cited by Silent Generation respondents (30%), and, to a lesser extent, Baby Boomers (23%) is “I let my membership lapse, but I have been a member in the past.” For Generation X (26%) and Millennials (23%), probably unsurprisingly, cost is the single biggest barrier. More alarmingly though, a full 21% of Millennials’ top reason for not joining an association was “I’ve never been invited”, and a further 37% of them either said they never had a reason to join, it never occurred to them to join, or they don’t know what’s available in their field. That’s a whopping 58% of the next generation of members who are waiting to be informed about and invited to join their discipline’s society community!
What can scholarly societies do to address these challenges and ensure that their organizations continue to be as vital to the scholarly community tomorrow as they have been until now? Wiley’s survey suggests four main areas for improvement – building trust, facilitating feedback, being inclusive, and embracing digital communications – all of which should help attract and retain younger members, while remaining relevant to members from all generations.
In the past 15 years or so, associations have certainly upped their efforts to engage with their members across their whole career. For example, the American Geophysical Union (AGU) has a very wide-ranging program of initiatives focused on attracting, retaining, and supporting early career researchers and professionals. This includes:
- Travel support for students and early career scientists to participate in scientific meetings
- Quarterly career advice webinars for early career scientists focusing on topics
- Presentations and other sharing science opportunities for ECRs (for example, 2500 student presentations are judged in the AGU Outstanding Student Paper award program each year)
- Multiple research grants, honors, awards and other recognition opportunities for Early Career earth and space scientists
- Tailored science communication workshops targeting student and early career researchers
- A series of professional development workshops for post-doctoral students and early career faculty focusing on academic careers
- A monthly Career Center Newsletter highlighting important information for early career earth and space scientists
- A “Student and Early Career Conference” at the AGU Annual Meeting
- Student and early career representation on all committees and task forces, as well as designated seats for students and ECRs on the science council and for an ECR on the Board
The results have been impressive – student and early career members represented 34% of the total membership in 2014, up 4% on the previous year. Back in 2008, just 20% of members were students (ECRs weren’t identified separately until 2012).
Not all scholarly societies can introduce such a diverse program, but we can all learn from AGU’s commitment to supporting the next generation of earth and space scientists. If we don’t, we are almost certainly jeopardizing the future of associations – not something most of us working in scholarly communications want to risk.
Updated June 22 to include link to white paper