Erisophian Literary Society membership certificate, 1859. Image via Baylor University.
Erisophian Literary Society membership certificate, 1859. Image via Baylor University.

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

Alice Meadows

Alice Meadows

I am a Co-Founder of the MoreBrains Cooperative, a scholarly communications consultancy with a focus on open research and research infrastructure. I have many years experience of both scholarly publishing (including at Blackwell Publishing and Wiley) and research infrastructure (at ORCID and, most recently, NISO, where I was Director of Community Engagement). I’m actively involved in the information community, and served as SSP President in 2021-22. I was honored to receive the SSP Distinguished Service Award in 2018, the ALPSP Award for Contribution to Scholarly Publishing in 2016, and the ISMTE Recognition Award in 2013. I’m passionate about improving trust in scholarly communications, and about addressing inequities in our community (and beyond!). Note: The opinions expressed here are my own


9 Thoughts on "The Generation Gap: How Society Membership Varies by Age Group"

Can we test for whether these results are a function of ‘generation’ or of age? In other words, what was the attitude of the Boomers and X-ers to societies when they were at the age Millennials are now? Has that changed over time (so suggesting the ECRS have always been fidgety, uncertain and uncommitted by nature) or were they more likely to have the attitudes then that they still have now (so suggesting a genuine generational difference)?

Compounding further of course might be the competitive environment for Millennials now compared with Boomers and X-ers at that age. Are there data on the number of societies that were available then compared with now? Given the increase in specialization then I’d suspect there are more but smaller societies now than then, when the behemoths perhaps had an unchallenged sway they no longer have. But can this be tested?

I think you’re spot on with this question, and similar membership data from previous years seems needed to answer the question raised.

Graduate students generally don’t have any money, and most grants or fellowships won’t pay for society memberships. Very few graduate students will end up staying in academia. As a student, you don’t regularly attend meetings, particularly if you come from a lab that’s not super well-funded. For many, that starts later in your postdoc years as you start hitting the job market. And since so few researchers stay in academia, you’re likely going to eliminate the vast majority of them from potential membership as they go off and work in banks or for law firms.

That’s a great question Martin. Wiley’s original intention was to carry out this survey regularly in order to look at trends over time, so that might help answer the question in future. In the meantime, the only way I can think of testing would be to see if there are any similar studies about society membership from when the current generations were younger, and compare results. If anyone knows of any such studies, please let us know.

Re your second point, good data on the number of scholarly societies today – never mind historically – is surprisingly hard to come by. This is the only place I know that has (publicly) tried to keep track: – and they have stopped trying! Again, other suggestions welcome.

The 58% figure suggests that what is most needed is marketing, not new services. Information is the issue.

It is statistically worrying that the age groups differ geographically. Regional differences in how societies work may be a factor in the numerical differences. For example, one is not invited to join AAAS or AGU. It is the only way to subscribe to Science or EOS.

What fields did your survey cover? Just the sciences or also humanities and social sciences? I’m wondering, for example, is any societies restrict submissions for the book prizes they award to just members and whether the opportunity to submit for such prizes is an important inducement for scholars in the humanities and social sciences (the societies represented by the ACLS).

I am puzzled about the age bracket for the so-called silent generation. I was born in 1942 and so was in college for all of the 1960’s. We were the foot soldiers for the social revolution, the like of which has not been seen since. When I first got to college in 1960, there was a piece of wood fence that traditionally each new class painted during the night. We burned it. That was just the beginning. We were the loudest generation in modern history.

What’s striking to me about this post and some of the comments is how “taken for granted” membership bases must feel — there is little research, when it happens it’s sporadic, and the members are really taken for granted by leadership and staff alike. I think the underlying challenge here is to treat members as customers, understand their needs, fill those you can, and do it in a way that makes them realize it was because they affiliated themselves with your organization. But too often leadership thinks all members are like them — facing their same struggles, experiencing each career stage as they did, etc., when in reality the world is now completely different for young scientists or physicians, and they have completely different needs from their predecessors (more lifestyle needs, feeling less optimistic, etc.). If an organization were offering me things that didn’t matter, I’d drift away, as well. This is especially important precisely because there is more competition — direct and indirect — than ever before. It’s always surprising to see an entire membership strategy hinge on some off-the-cuff statement of what the members need, rather than on data or evidence or even input from the membership.

Thanks Kent. To be fair I think many – perhaps most – scholarly societies do survey their members on a fairly regular basis. What’s different about this survey is that it includes people who don’t belong to a society – in some cases have never done so. And of course it’s pan-society as well. So while individual society surveys are important I think it’s especially helpful for associations also to take this wider view of what their members – current and potential – need and want.

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