The Next Generation? We've Seen It Here Before

Youth would be an ideal state if it came a little later in life.

Herbert Henry Asquith

If the quote above doesn't lead you to pause for a moment it shall do so eventually, and it shall do so much sooner than you anticipate. (Consider it a lesson in foibles of forecasting.)

Passing, fading and, finally, lost youth has been a preoccupation for mankind almost from the moment man started living long enough beyond that youth to have time to look back and reflect.

As a community, credit unions have their own worries over lost youth, and I don't just mean conference speakers who still submit their high school yearbook photo for the meeting program. No, in this case I mean the industry-wide paranoia that Lost Youth means youths lost, worries that Gen X'ers will become ex-members, that Gen Y'ers will ask "Why should I join?" and that Millennials will disappear into their incredibly shrinking mobile devices at the same time credit unions are busy trying to figure out just who and what Millennials are.

How About Some Perspective?

In this issue, Credit Union Journal looks at a much-discussed, more debated and mostly disagreed upon issue: the next generation of credit union members and employees, with a goal of providing some insights and perspective. And perspective is much needed.

You hear it practically everywhere you go when the financial co-op folks come together: younger people don't know what credit unions are. They aren't joining. The average CU member is 40-something years old. The average CU board member is 140-something years old. The CU message doesn't resonate any longer. "Philosophy" smacks of antiquated Plato to the Play-doh generations. And on and on...

I've heard those refrains over and over like a four-lyric hip hop song at practically every gathering of credit unions I've attended over the past several years.

What's become of the younger generation? They've grown up and started worrying about the younger generation.

Roger Allen

The concept of a "generation gap" emerged in the 1960s as the result of changing cultural mores. But the gap's gotten new juice in the 2000s from technology. Younger people communicate, engage and consume in ways that would have previous generations texting their disapproval; that is, if they didn't find texting ridiculous.

The Internet generations have grown up with a technology that means everything and everyone are everywhere all the time. That's not an expectation, it's an unquestioned assumption. Can you hear me now? Of course you can hear me now; why wouldn't you be able to? They are Generation Mobile, and they are on the other side of a perceived-to-be-growing gap with Generation Stationary.

And Yet...

So just look at them and sigh, and know they love you.

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

The beauty in the insight of the lyric above is that it was written by young men who are now old men (but still rocking), and yet it still applies. They wrote it about their parents, but today can sing it about their children and grandchildren. That's because of what someone once also famously stated about "what goes around..."

In the special report in this issue, Charles Schewe, professor of marketing at the Isenberg School of Management at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, observes that 15 years ago the prevailing attitude was that all members of Generation X, those 36-47 years old now, were "slackers." His point was to illustrate how over time generations eventually "become just like everybody else." Now it's those "slackers," after all, who are the juicy target demo for every CU in the country looking to make a loan.

The credit union message does resonate, and resonate strongly with young consumers. Just look at who led Bank Transfer Day and who was behind-and participating-in that. Sure, the technology has changed, but what hasn't is that the CU story must be told, repeated repeatedly, and it must be told in new channels such as social media.

Bridging That Other Gap

To get back my youth I would do anything in the world, except take exercise, get up early, or be respectable.

Oscar Wilde

All the focus about penetrating new markets of younger (and seemingly younger) consumers has been about credit unions reaching out to those consumers on their terms. But there is one gap that, in order to be crossed, is going to require some effort on the part of that Mobile Generation to get mobile and come at least halfway-if not further.

Funny that in a world where so many are concerned with making the A list it's the e-list (e-services, e-mail, e-account opening, e-members, etc.) that has changed things more than anything else over the past 20 years. And among all those e's is one that is often rightfully attached to Gen Y, Gen X and the Millennials: e-ntitlement.

Baby Boomer managers at credit unions are eager to attract younger generations as workers, but if there's a place I sense some aggravation among the Boomers it's in that very e: employment. I've lost count of how often I've heard any number of consultants who are supposedly "e-xperts" on Gen Y and Millennials basically tell CUs that if they want to be lucky enough to employ younger workers they better make some changes.

In the World Council meeting in Ottawa earlier this year, for example, I heard one person tell CU leaders that to recruit and retain people in their 20s as workers, credit unions need to be prepared to meet an almost hostage note list of demands.

A List of Demands

Those demands include the need to have "clearly defined career roadmaps," provide education allowances, "allow younger employees to create their own action plans," provide a "balance between work and life," flexible work hours, "time off for appointments," and CU resources and paid time so the young employee can focus on their "own community causes."

How, exactly, do you tell when that person is on vacation?

I could see CEOs and others in the audience listening to that person and wondering if, gosh, limos to and from work would be satisfactory, or even whether the new hire should be expected to come to work at all.

And that wasn't all. The same person said Generation Self-Esteem needs regular pats on the back and ongoing recognition for "jobs well done," not to mention "rapid advancement, and not just advancement based on seniority or whose next in line."

Hey, that whole "no seniority" plan always sounds great, doesn't it, when you're the last one in line? You cease to be a big fan of that system, however, when there's someone in line behind you.

Obviously, there is a lot changing. But then there always has been, and despite all of it you can relax a bit. The credit union business model is a good one. Like all good ideas, it knows a little something about surviving change. It's been through the widespread adoption of the telephone, electricity in homes, mainframe computers, fax machines, dial-up and FaceTime.

Flappers, Punks & Geeks

CU offices have been built and remodeled through generations of mill workers and flappers, dusty Depression-era Okies and brass-buttoned GIs, hippies and yuppies, punks and geeks, X's and Y's. Today there are more of those offices than ever before, with new walls and configurations and technology, but all standing on the same foundation.

That which seems the height of absurdity in one generation often becomes the height of wisdom in another.

Adlai Stevenson

Frank J. Diekmann can be reached at fdiekmann@cujournal.com.