The Limits of Generational Orthodoxy: Part II

By Jeff De Cagna, AIMP FRSA FASAE • July 9, 2019

This is the second in a two-part series in which I examine the limits of generational orthodoxy. In Part I, I explored some of the problems with generational thinking and why it is detrimental to associations’ ability to build meaningful relationships with under 40 stakeholders. In Part II, I will discuss three ways that association decision-makers can think and act beyond generational orthodoxy.

Future Readiness Matters More Than Generational Thinking

Given the extraordinary influence that generational thinking exerts on their work, one might conclude that what our community needs is “Millennial-ready” or “Gen Z-ready” associations. The true priority, however, must be on building “future-ready” associations that are capable of thriving—and helping their stakeholders thrive—in a world experiencing profound and comprehensive societal transformation.

Earlier this year, I shared six principles for building future-ready associations: 1) generative attention, 2) deep unlearning, 3) integrated intelligences, 4) systemwide stewardship, 5) networked foresight and 6) inclusive co-creation. (Read about Principles 1-3 here and Principles 4-6 here.) Working within the powerful framework these principles combine to create offers a richer and more meaningful context in which associations can design and build mutually-beneficial relationships with the exact stakeholders they must involve to move their organizations toward a higher level of future readiness.

Three Ways to Think and Act Beyond Generational Orthodoxy

To overcome their increasingly detrimental impact, association decision-makers need to think and act beyond generational orthodoxies that do nothing but enervate their organizations, so they can concentrate their energies on preparing for the future. Here are three ways to begin making this shift:

Stop playing the “generation game”

In Part I, I shared John Quiggin’s quote about the “generation game.” He is absolutely right, and associations should take heed. While the rest of society may remain mesmerized by generational orthodoxy, association decision-makers are fully capable of making independent decisions about how they want their organizations to interact with under 40 stakeholders. Associations are under no obligation to attach harmful labels to people based solely on their birth years. The choice to discontinue the practice of using generational categories and language and end generational assumption-making altogether is both responsible and respectful.

Start listening and learning

Association decision-makers can apply the principle of deep unlearning to challenge both broad generational orthodoxies and the specific ways of doing business that have been layered on top over many years. To fill the void created by the elimination of generational orthodoxy, associations can pursue the principle of generative attention and undertake a serious effort to listen to and learn with their under 40 stakeholders. Instead of operating on the basis of dubious assumptions offered by third parties, association decision-makers can develop real-world and actionable insights that come directly from the stakeholders with whom they are seeking to build mutually-beneficial relationships.

Keep the focus on meaning

For more than a decade now, I have been challenging associations to let go of the relevance fallacy, which is just as harmful to building future readiness as generational orthodoxy. These two counterproductive pursuits are now linked, however, as decision-makers throughout our community talk about making their organizations relevant for “the next generation.” (The fact that we are still talking about making associations relevant does suggest that this approach is not working.) To break the link, association decision-makers can apply the principle of inclusive co-creation by making a concerted effort to attract a wider array of talented contributors who are excited to collaborate with younger stakeholders on their terms and keep the focus on cultivating genuine meaning in those relationships.

Contrary to our community’s prevailing view, generational orthodoxy is not helping associations prepare themselves or their under 40 stakeholders for a world experiencing societal transformation. We can do better. It is time to move on.

About The Author

Jeff De Cagna FRSA FASAE is executive advisor for Foresight First LLC in Reston, Virginia and a respected contrarian thinker on the future of associating and associations. Jeff advises and serves on association and non-profit boards, and he has pursued executive development in both the work of governing (BoardSource and Harvard Business School) and the work of foresight (Institute for the Future and Oxford University). Jeff serves on ASAE’s Key Consultants Committee and on the ASAE Foundation Research Committee, for which he chairs the AI/Automation Task Force. He is the author of the eBook, Foresight is The Future of Governing: Building Thrivable Boards, Stakeholders and Systems for the 21st Century, produced in collaboration with Association Adviser, a Naylor publication.

In August 2019, Jeff will become the 32nd recipient of ASAE’s Academy of Leaders Award, the association’s highest individual honor given to consultants or industry partners in recognition of their support of ASAE and the association community.

Jeff can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @dutyofforesight.