It was like a Gen Y focus group on steroids everywhere you looked. High schoolers by the hundreds-one person said there were more than a thousand-a glued-together-by-acne-cream mass of iPods and cell phones and chattering girls and voice-breaking boys divided into cliques of six to eight as if they were all connected by a Slinky, snapping back anyone who strayed too far away.
So many teens that they had actually managed to fill a portion of an unfillable hotel, the Opryland in Nashville, that over-the-top tribute to the Great Indoors and comfortable shoes. They were on hand for a Southeast convention of the National Beta Club, which says it recognizes academic achievement, promotes character and develops leadership skills in young adults.
You probably are already aware I was not in the Opryland because I am a National Beta Club alumnus or because the organization planned to present me with an honorary anything. No, I was present for two reasons: first, I enjoy a hike from my room to the convention center that is actually longer than my flight, and second, because CUNA Mutual Group was hosting its Discovery Conference at the hotel and had asked me to moderate what turned out to be a very interesting session on "What Do People Think About Credit Unions, If They Think of Them At All?"
On the day before I was to moderate I was mulling over the session topic and others that were on the agenda, including the omnipresent every-conference discussion of Gen Y. After all, the average credit union member is approaching 50, and at a few credit unions the average age is deceased.
This has a lot of folks worried for good reason, and credit unions have responded with clubs and literacy training and special programs and even the National Credit Union Foundation-sponsored BizKids on PBS.
So over an afternoon I talked to 31 of the National Beta Club teens and I asked them, "Do you know what a credit union is?" Can you guess how many could ace this exam? You might want to sit down, because the answer is a nice round "zero." Not a one. I either got a blank stare, as if they were my own kids, some decent guesses, or, most often, really bad guesses. "It's like a bank," a few of the kids offered. A "union of creditors" was another frequent stab (for some CUs, it's not too far off). I also asked each of the 31 if they were a credit union member. Again, nary an "I am."
I'll be the first to tell you that 31 is too small a sample size to draw too grand a conclusion. Still, not even one correct or approximate guess? Even more worrisome is that the National Beta Club is for the honor roll students, the ones most likely to go on to college and be the leaders of tomorrow's SEGs.
Two other notes from interacting with the National Beta Club kids. It is said that curiosity, more than GPA, is the best sign of intelligence and of the 31, only one, a young woman in the last group I interviewed, responded by saying, "Well, will you tell us what a credit union is?" And in one group, a young man wearing a dark blue suit and a starter-phony smile stepped in front of the others to grab the limelight when he saw I was holding a reporter's notebook. Turns out he was one of the candidates for president of the group.
* Speaking of the Opryland, one hotel employee boasted to me that the hotel is one of the largest in the world that isn't part of a casino. Having been earlier charged by the hotel $22.50 for a 10-page fax, who needs a casino?
* In the June 18 issue Credit Union Journal reported on how more than 400 credit unions are now using YouTube to post videos, an electronic attic full of everything from TV commercials to board candidates talking about why they deserve to win a seat to video tributes to various folks. If you could create a video to explain what a credit union is and why it is different (see the first item above if you don't think it's needed), what would you create? How would you tell the story?
I'd show a bank lobby packed with sheep, er customers, all with their eyes closed as they are herded back and forth through a maze of red velvet ropes. Each time the camera angle changes we'll see the bank's sign showing a new name going into effect. One fed-up man or woman would suddenly opens his/her eyes and exclaim, "Hey, why are we putting up with this?! We can do this ourselves. Let's all pool our money and use it to make loans to one another. We'll pay interest on savings from what others pay in interest on loans. We'll only charge what we need to cover costs and set aside a little for reserves. We'll all be equal and elect some of us to oversee things and hire some folks to run the place. This is our money, and this way we get to keep a lot more of it!" Camera pulls back to see others opening their eyes and following the man out the door.
I'd like to hear your suggestions. Remember, money is no object. You can e-mail the Journal by going to www.cujournal.com and clicking on the Letters to the Editor tab in the left-hand navigation bar.
Frank J. Diekmann is Publisher of the Credit Union Journal and can be reached at fdiekmann<at>cujournal.com.