Associations and the Jobless Future

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Is the “jobless future”—and the true end of traditional association membership—just around the corner? If it’s true, as scary as that prospect is, it may also usher in a new “golden age” of association growth, relevance, and influence, even as membership as we know it disappears forever.

According to Michael Fertik and Vivek Wadhwa in their Washington Post article What We’ll Encounter on the Path to the Jobless Future, in less than 20 years the world economy will be a completely different landscape, littered with the burnt-out hulks of entire industries, jobs, and professions that are thriving today—and which are the basis of nearly all association membership markets.

Whether or this vision of the future unfolds in quite the way the authors have predicted, it is compelling food for thought for associations that hope to ride traditional membership into future growth.

The good news

Weirdly, the first step along the path to general joblessness could be good news for associations. That’s because Fertik and Wadhwa say that in this first phase of the transformation, many jobs that have been “offshored” in the past few decades will begin to migrate back to the US. In general, employment will rise as these jobs return and as new jobs and industries develop to help companies and workers transition to Phase II.

“First, there will need to be a massively structural retraining effort to help prepare more people for the jobs that remain — and new industries that may surface which require skills and knowledge we can’t yet fully anticipate.”

So, for the next 10-15 years, predictions are that there will be an increased need for professional and job training, education, and support, as well as an even more urgent need for interpersonal connectivity (aka networking)—the traditional “big three” of most association membership value propositions.

So, it’s just possible that some associations in some industries will actually see somewhat of a rise in demand for membership products and services, and thus membership growth.

Given all of the other factors working against traditional association membership models, and the fact that this anticipated rise in employment and job training needs will not happen in all industries, however, association growth overall may not be (probably won’t be) significant. But, even if the result is more of a stabilization of membership or just a slower rate of decline, it could give associations—and the industries they serve—critical breathing room to revamp and prepare for what lies ahead.

The bad news

Unless associations get off the dime and start thinking differently, however, nothing will stop their decline. Whether it lasts for 5 years, 10 years, or more, the first phase of the transition to a jobless future will end. The gains in jobs and immediate training needs will be temporary, and then the trend toward joblessness will accelerate and become irreversible. And, as jobs and industries go, so goes association membership—and any associations still based on that model.

Fertik and Wadhwa put it this way:

“…as industries blink out like so many dying stars and the jobs with them, people will be unsettled, angry and even panicked.”

Once joblessness becomes entrenched, the next phase of the transition will be “a volatile period of adjustment as people, governments, and institutions come to grips with a sea change in the way we work.”

And therein lies the opportunity for associations.

The opportunity

Helping “people, governments, and institutions come to grips with a sea change” is a task tailor-made for associations. As the jobless future unfolds, the need for associations’ unique capabilities will only increase. As a result, associations’ role can only become more important—if they have the foresight to embrace that role and the changes it requires to nearly every facet of how associations operate.

Associations are the nexus of government, corporations, educational institutions and individuals. More than any other type of organization, associations have direct access to a living, breathing community of people who are or will be directly affected by these changes. Their unique capability and reason for existence is to bring together and to harness the power of a like-minded community to anticipate and solve problems as a group.

If the jobless future is really already happening, within most of our lifetimes every sector will be looking for the kind of assistance associations are uniquely positioned to offer—to identify, connect, engage and harness the power of their communities and relationships to solve the problems before them.

But, they won’t be doing it through traditional membership and “engagement” practices. No committee can negotiate the change that Fertik, Wadhwa and others predict. It will take continual vigilance and analysis of emerging trends, constant testing and refining of real-time solutions and delivery methods. Even more than it is today, the future will be driven by a completely new and relentlessly-changing market, with the association acting as facilitator and distributor of constituent-driven (not association-driven) and constituent-initiated change, services, and guidance.

Do associations have it in them to meet the challenge?