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Home > The Next Generation's Rotary Club
From Paper to Pixels
The Next Generation's Rotary Club
Rebecca Ryan

    In his book, Bowling Alone, author Robert Putnam argues that although more Americans are bowling than ever before, they’re doing it alone, not in leagues. Putnam’s book spews gobs of evidence to back up his thesis that our stock of social capital – the very fabric of our connections with each other – has plummeted, impoverishing our lives and communities. Putnam’s spreadsheets are impressive: We sign fewer petitions; belong to fewer organizations; know our neighbors less; meet with friends less frequently; and even socialize with our families less often.
    Now wait just a gol’darn minute.
    Yes, Kiwanis and Rotary clubs are aging (and dying) in some places. But c’mon! Cast your eye to some less traditional – and more relevant – trends for a different story. The Howard Dean for President campaign was driven by a very active web presence and meet-ups. eBay has a market cap larger than the GDP of most Third World countries, but most buyers and sellers never see each other. And don’t even get me started about the social capital generated by Moveon.org.
    Truth is, my generation (Gen X, born 1961-1981) doesn’t join Rotary, and we wouldn’t be caught dead singing “My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean.” But that doesn’t mean we don’t have our own gig going. Today, young professionals are showing up, reaching out and digging in through “young professionals” networks.
    Young professional (or YP) orgs are the next generation’s service and civic club, and they’re popping up across the United States like freckles on a redhead. I’m looking at a database right now that shows no less than 90 active young professionals networks across the country. The Washington, D.C., young pros boast over 50,000 members. Pittsburgh has several YP orgs. Young Professionals of Milwaukee grew from a goose egg to over 3,000 members in just three years. Hold the MSG, I just Googled and it turns out even Hong Kong has a young professionals organization!
    What’s happening here that Professor Putnam missed?
    For a relatively small and mobile generation that craves connection and impact, YP networks quickly link young professionals to each other and to their communities. Despite the media’s portrayal of my generation as slackers, YP networks tell a different story. Young professionals aren’t apathetic; they just make a difference in a different way.
    Young professionals are engineers, graphic designers, architects, city planners, web-heads, entrepreneurs, nurses, teachers and nonprofiteers. They’re the “knowledge workers” Peter Drucker  warned us about. Over 60 percent of Gen Xers have training beyond high school. So, they’re trained to be problem solvers and they’re intent on making a difference in their communities.
    In August, I hung out with 42 leaders of YP groups from across the country. They were summiting in Milwaukee for the first time, and they blew me away. Here’s what you should know:
  • YPs know how to command media attention. If these folks were my firm’s PR team, we would have our own cable TV show. Maybe even a breakfast cereal.
  • YPs are honked off that many of their community leaders view YP networks as “cute little social clubs.” In these cases, YPs are going around the traditional power structure or infiltrating it. Generally, they excuse the establishment’s stupidity by referring to it as “old and slow.” They’re not waiting to be asked. They’re inventing new, faster ways.
  • They’re intent – nah, more like obsessed – with making their communities more inclusive of all kinds of diversity. Every session in Milwaukee addressed – in one way or another – how to break down barriers, and take up hands with each other: gay, straight, black, yellow, purple, tongue rings, tattoos. Tolerance is passé; inclusion is in.
  • YPs are measuring their success (income and expense ratios, perception changes, talent attraction and retention indicators) to make their case. Think YPs with MBAs.
    Bottom line? Communities that embrace their YP networks and leaders stand to gain big rewards in their quest to attract and retain our world’s scarce supply of young talent. Communities that continue to rely on the noon Rotary for influence and ideas will compel YPs to relocate to cooler communities where the YP voice is honored and respected.
    Think I’m kidding? While we were in Milwaukee, four of the out-of-town YP leaders inquired about jobs there. Evidently Young Professionals of Milwaukee is fulfilling its mission: to shape and showcase metro Milwaukee to attract and retain diverse young talent.

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