Why Do Youth Join Associations?

March 4, 2014 in Research by Liz McKenna

What does it mean to become a member of an association? Why is it important to become a member of a particular association? More importantly, how does one choose which organization to join? People of all ages and all generations join associations for a variety of reasons.  Alexis de Tocqueville once said that Americans of all ages “are forming associations. They are not only commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but others of a thousand different types—religious, moral, serious, futile, very general, and very limited, immensely large and very minute.” 

Youth may join for other reasons than senior citizens, young adults, etc. Youth, especially of the millennial generation, are particularly interested in civic engagement. By joining an association, they are partaking in some type of civic engagement. According to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement with Tufts University, the types of organizations youth may join include general youth organizations, religious institutions, K-12 organizations, and if youth between ages 18 and 29 have children, they join their children’s schools’ associations. Since the emergence of Web 2.0, young people have overall declined in membership within unions, political parties, and religious organizations. It is still the case that educational level determines how active youth will be in an association: the higher the education, the more active a member of the youth is within an association.

Many associations make their members pay for a membership, or at least give to the association in some way, which has proven to be troublesome for young people if they are college students or young professionals networking. According to Tschirhart and Gazley, members’ “financial donations to their associations are influenced by members commitment, level of engagement, and whether they were solicited for a gift.”

Therefore, if members’ “financial donations to their associations are influenced by members commitment, level of engagement, and whether they were solicited for a gift.” Therefore, if members pay for a membership, they are more likely to stay in that association and their members will also hold them accountable for staying in the association. To be a member of these mass types of membership associations, one only needs to write a check for dues, read a newsletter, and attend a few meetings. However, some authors argue that this is not enough.

Religion is another powerful tool to get people involved as a member in an association. According to Pui-Yan Lam, Protestants are more likely than Catholics to possess voluntary association memberships. This involvement is due to the aspect of a family-type orientation that creates bonds between people in an association, whereas the Catholic Church focuses on the relationship with a church and the family — limiting the members’ participation in voluntary associations. Many associations see religion as a positive influence on joining an association, and for many, a reason that they join. In Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone, Putnam also argues that religious affiliation is the most common associational membership in America. 

People may join an association for political reasons — both on right and the left. For example, the right sees becoming a member of an association as “an alternative to government sponsored programs.” The left, on the other hand, argues that it fosters grassroots politics in young people and increases their voice. Theiss-Morse and Hibbing take a realistic look at membership associations, and discuss reasons that youth join associations. They argue that talking about civic participation tells some kind of a tale, which promises better citizenship in the community, but this tale is not realistic. They also pose the idea that scholars have argued that placing such a strong emphasis on civic participation could actually turn people away from becoming politically involved. In other words, youth can get together and talk about goals and beliefs, but as soon as one person brings up voting or lobbying, people start to leave. These authors point out the reality that people are generally busy with work, family, and other social activities, that they do not care for politics and civic engagement as much as scholars would like to think. People generally lack motivation to partake in such civic engagement activities. This is a somewhat hopeless take on civic participation. They are essentially arguing that students should not try to promote volunteerism or help institutions improve. It takes more than just joining a club to fulfill civic responsibilities. They also suggest that it is important to say the truth when trying to get others involved in civic participation and politics. Don’t tell them it is easy and a fun activity. Instead, tell people that it is “dreary and difficult.” 

On the contrary, Putnam argues that when people are involved in an association, they are more likely to trust people in general than those that are not involved in an association. This importance of trust, according to Putnam, is due to the fact that people in a type of membership association share similar values and views and learns more about each other each time they all come together for meetings or socials. Members tend to develop social trust with each other and this trend is growing in other countries.  Members also tend to pay more attention to the media and read news articles in order to bring up particular issues that might be facing their association.

Whereas some scholars view writing a check to an organization an important duty as a member of an association, Putnam argues that writing these checks deters people away from the important civic work that needs to be done, and does not have the same political engagement benefits for members as other grassroots organizations do. Moreover, professional associations are rising, as are educational and occupational levels.

The emergence of political groups and organizations can be offsetting and make it seem like youth are joining more associations. However, young adults are less likely today than in the 1970s to belong to groups, attend religious services, belong to a union, etc. However, it is not just a change in generations; it could also be that younger people today take longer to plunge into an association than prior generations. For example, they may want to get married, start a career, and have children before figuring out where they want to put their memberships. However, although the number of active youth in associations may be decreasing, community volunteer work through high schools or community programs is growing. Community-based youth organizations and religious congregations are bringing youth aged people in and trying to figure out innovative ways to involve youth. 

There is also the argument that there is a decline of the youth in membership associations. A reason for this decline is because people are working too much, which discourages social participation in community associations. The fact that younger people are having children might have an influence (both negatively and positively) on peoples’ decision to join membership associations. On one hand, people will join a membership association if their children are of school age. On the other hand, they may not join an association if they have many children or their children are younger. Membership is declining in fraternal organizations, on the whole. Membership in traditional women’s group has declined, as well as the League of Women Voters. Overall, most civic organizations have seen a drop in decline, but a person’s work history affects his or her decision to join an association. Rotolo and Wilson both argue that people with progressive work histories are more likely to become a member of an association.

Youth have many reasons to join associations. Reasons may include peer pressure, a sense of welcoming and involvement, religion, and political motivation. However, generational differences and priorities contribute to less and less engagement in associations with the youth. Moreover, youth are still joining them, but it takes more pressure from outside resources and motivation to get them active and involved.

Below is a selection of research that focuses on why youth join associations and each article discusses different aspects of associations and what entices youth into them.

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De Tocqueville, A., Bradley, P., Reeve, H., & Bowen, F. (1972). Democracy in America (Vol. 2). New York: Vintage Books.

Tocqueville discusses the democratic revolution, in particularly why democracy is failing and succeeding. This influential texts discusses the importance of egalitarian ideals which influence the divine will.

Flanagan, C., & Levine, P. (2010). “Civic engagement and the transition to adulthood.” TheFuture of Children, 20(1), 159-179.

Flanagan and Levine discuss the importance of civic engagement, and how it is important for functioning youth into adults. They also discuss how less likely later generations are to portray characteristics of citizenship than older generations.

 LAM, P. Y. (2006). “Religion and civic culture: A cross‐national study of voluntary association membership.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 45(2), 177-193.

Lam focuses on voluntary association membership through a cross-national study discussing religions. Lam argues that Protestants are more likely than Catholics to mbe members of voluntary associations.

Putnam, R. D. (1995). “Bowling alone: America’s declining social capital.” Journal of democracy, 6(1), 65-78.

 Putnam discusses the strengths and weaknesses of social capital. He also argues that it is  crucial to have a strong and active civic society, even though there is evidence that civic engagement has declined.

Rotolo, T., & Wilson, J. (2003, December). “Work histories and voluntary association memberships.” In Sociological Forum (Vol. 18, No. 4, pp. 603-619). Kluwer Academic Publishers-Plenum Publishers.

Rotolo and Wilson discuss the influence of one’s work history in that person’s decision to join an association. They also discuss demographics in those work histories, and correlate that to the decline of memberships in voluntary associations.

Theiss-Morse, E., & Hibbing, J. R. (2005). “Citizenship and civic engagement.” Annu. Rev. Polit. Sci., 8, 227-249.

Theiss-Morse and Hibbing discuss the inadequacy of joining an association for good citizenship. They argue a side that emphasizes that civic participation can actually turn people away from joining a membership association, and democracy is not as nice as many people say it is.

Tschirhart, M., & Gazley, B. (2013). “Advancing Scholarship on Membership Associations:New Research and Next Steps.” Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly,  0899764013517052.

 Tschirhart and Gazle explore the influence of associational activity on one’s life and the structures of different associations. They also discuss different types of membership associations and their characteristics.