Russell’s Ramblings

Those who do not hear the music might think the dancer mad

Will the “Millennial Generation” Hear the Lion’s Roar?

This past week, I was speaking to Benny Ellerbe,  Executive Director of Optimist International.  Ellerbe is the chief executive officer of that non-profit service organization with roughly 100,000 members worldwide.  Prior to assuming that role, he served Junior Chamber International as their Secretary General.  It is through the Junior Chamber that I met Benny about 30 years ago.    We were both lamenting a report from the Service Club Leaders Conference (consisting of many of the nation’s service and civic organizations) which continued to show a marked decline in membership among organizations such as Kiwanis, Elks, Rotary, Jaycees, Lions, and many of our other clubs.

Participation in civic organizations, service clubs, and political involvement has decreased dramatically over the last three decades.  According to a report I read a few years ago, the average age of someone participating in a community service organization is 47 and the leader of the club is typically 53.  The average new member joins at 33 with a gap of 20 years between the new member and the leader of the organization.    Why the decline in civic service?  Most service clubs were, generally speaking, very successful from 1910 to 1950 when: a) business was more local; b) people lived where they worked; c) and there were not many options for civic engagement.

According to research on today’s “Generation Y or Millennial Generation,” most aspire to be self-employed and do not desire the leadership or personal interaction provided by clubs.  They demonstrate a neoliberalism approach with an increased use and familiarity with communications, media, and digital technologies.    Robert Putnam documented this phenomenon a decade ago in his book, “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.”  It is a fascinating look at the disengagement of our young population over the last few decades.

In 1992 – 1993, I had the opportunity to serve as the president of the United States Junior Chamber of Commerce (Jaycees), the largest young people’s organization in the country.  The membership of the association when I was president was approximately 140,000.  Today, it is less than 50,000.      I was taught by my parents that civic service was not a hobby but a responsibility we had and the debt we repay to those countless individuals who paved the way for the freedom and livelihood we enjoy today.

Lake Norman Chamber Interns, Georgie Wackerman, Chelsea Davis, Lauren McAlexander and De’Mon Brookes are pictured speaking with Bill Russell, the Chamber President and CEO

On a very positive note, this past summer the Chamber has employed a variety of Chamber Interns who are all active in their area high schools.  They are members of the  DECA Club, involved in Church activities, teach basketball in youth leagues, and a variety of other service projects.     Last month, I met with a group of young professionals who had re-chartered the Lake Norman Jaycees and we discussed a variety of projects they were implementing to make our region a better place to work and live.

America is facing challenging times.  While it is still up to many of us to serve as mentors and train our successors to lead this nation, America must feel the power of her young people.  I can see a sense of civic duty and responsibility in the faces of our young interns, the young professionals I met with weeks ago, and the countless young volunteers who recently helped out with Big Day at the Lake.    As the generation which will pass this torch of leadership to the next, we must instill in our young people that earth’s great treasure lies in human personality, and that service to humanity is the best work of life.


August 2, 2010 - Posted by | Chamber of Commerce | , , , , , ,


  1. Bill, I have read your comments with a lot of interest. I think that the problem goes much deeper than service clubs.
    We are raising our young in a way that is alarming at best. We have created a nation that is full of instant everything. If I want to be entertained,I click a remote. If I want to play ,I can also click on. There is no longer any encouragement to use one’s imagination or creativity.
    Gone are the days when your mother said “Good-bye, your friends are outside!” It is now “Play video games.”
    Our young people are no longer being raised to learn how to be in a social setting and learn to set goals,cooperate,deal with success and well as failure. For the most part,the kids are self centered and self absorbed.
    You and I have known each other a long time. We have laughed TOGETHER and we have cried TOGETHER. I wonder if the modern child knows what that means.
    The way our young people are being brought up, they are losing the ability to do those things.
    Fast forward that idea to young adulthood and you see why they are no longer joining service clubs. Look at the statistics you stated. Those age groups are the ones who grew up before the current wave of child rearing came into vogue.
    All the best,
    Mike Lynch

    Comment by michael Lynch | August 2, 2010 | Reply

  2. Bill — You provided some great leadership as national president of the U.S. Junior Chamber of Commerce and I was proud to have worked with you. After working at the Jaycees I went on to become executive vice president of the National Exchange Club, another service club with a long tradition in the community.

    I don’t know what the solution is, but I have been advocating that America’s service clubs pool their resources and commission a research paper on the causes for membership decline and potential future directions to remain relevant in today’s world. We know or suspect many causes for the decline, but we need any remedial actions to be evidence-based. Our nation has wonderful young people. We must figure out how to engage them in building better communities.



    Comment by Dave Nershi | August 2, 2010 | Reply

    • Dave: Thanks Dave and you are very kind…and after all these years, thanks again for allowing me to “win” the President’s tennis challenge. You were the far better player! Congrats on the exchange club. I know you are doing a superb job. That’s a great organization.

      My very best to you.


      Comment by Bill Russell | August 2, 2010 | Reply

  3. Bill,

    You and I have never met, I have a Jaycee career that goes back to 1963, and I was part of the professional staff of the United States Jaycees from 1971-1976. I live in Manchester, NH

    I’ve been reading your posting thru the USJC Crew, and I applaud your reference to Dr Putnam’s book.

    In one of the emails one of our alumni, I think Jim Wesberry, referred to the PEW Foundation study about Millenials, I’ve been reading it. Both these references provide some history about some generations that have eluded us.

    Often when I look at ecomonomic data or talk with friends from the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, you begin to see how the cost of living drove many to seek higher incomes plus, plus, plus. If we thought 15,000 dollars was a lot in our time to buy a home, just imagine what its taking for those who now graduate with a double mortgage of college loans and a mortgage, plus, plus, plus.

    Something happened during the 80’s that I still can’t quite put my finger on within our organization, the Jaycees; I was out doing other things during that time, but other organizations were also feeling the membership decline.

    Some of it had to do with urban sprawl and suburbia, and the more we spread, and traveled to work the less time we had for community. Yet communities still functined and the leadership took on a different look and way of delivering participation.

    One could ask did we not deliver a product or service that was not enticing to potential new members, or did they go about getting what we once offered through the Jaycees through other avenues.

    Having spent the last 26 years of my life on a college campus, I can assure you and others that the naiveness among young people, in some ways, still exists about day-to-day living, community, and leadership, and to deal with this colleges and high schools often create organizations or offer courses to help provide avenues to develop those skills Jaycees and other organizations once offerred.

    Once graduated, many students bring to their careers skills and knowledge we never possessed, along with economic baggage we never experienced.

    The question to be answered is really do we have the tools to provide an enormous number of young people with a reason to become involved, because many are involved just not with the Jaycees.

    You, personally and professionally, certainly are living the day-to-day experience of what it takes to establish and maintain an effective community. Just watching a few weeks of C-Span, and I mean enough of it that you see the meetings and participation of people of all ages, and political persuasions, whether you agree or not, you can see what’s happenning and what they are being led to believe. That it is being led by political parties is bothering to me.

    Reading the New York Times sets the news agenda for a week on such a variety of subjects, it’s invaluable to the public discourse of our communities. If we could get away from yelling at each other journalism and discussion and replacing it with discussion and questioning that leads to solutions perhaps we might get somewhere. But I find myself being critical of so many talking heads who fuel the fires of disagreement rather than seeking ways to solve the problems we face.

    Sometime ago I predicted a different kind of United States was taking shape for our generation, ending eras of seemingly unlimited abundance, as powerful new forces moved into the foreground. This transition is being generated to some extent by a variety of economic shock waves, and scandals, that are prompting many to take a new and searching look at the United States’ values and goals.

    Abroad, America’s primacy is finding itself curbed not only by major powers, but by the non-industrialized nations of the Mideast, Africa, and Latin America whose weapon is possession of the world’s largest resources of strategic materials.

    Shortages are introducing Americans to inconveniences and anxieties many have never experienced. Young and middle-aged Americans are feeling, with evident pain, the cutting edge of recession as the banking and financial industry debacle continues.

    We face enormous interntional challenges on many fronts and we cannot rely on the methods of the past unless we want to annihilate each other.

    I think if many could we would turn off the rest of the world and concentrate on ourselves, but that is not a luxury we can have, or ever could have had.

    But the laboratory of our communities and the leadership it can spawn is there if we can tap the spirit of young America.

    This cooperative blend of community effort has been the key to our success. We are now seeing problems emerging that we never imagined. And their solution is in our hands.

    To me it is amazing how much fine thought and community effort can emerge from a group of experts and laymen working together towards solving a problem. It is especially interesting to note that involved neophytes sometimes possess the clearest insight of all, since they view the situation without vocational prejudices.

    There was a time when I belived we could solve anything. My experinece has taught me that there are those problems you can solve and those where you can only put in place the processes and procedures to deal with them. The art form is to know when to do which. I never doubt what a small group of thoughtful, committed people can do. That kind of change is powerful and fulfilling.

    Now more than ever, it is important to not lose faith in our leaders and the mechanisms which will assure our success. If we can use to full advantage the potential resources and opportunities of the larger community area, where citizens have an open, positive relationship with their institutions, where citizens have the means for taking part in decisions that affect them.

    Such an environment should engender an interest by young America to be a part and a role for the Jaycees could once again emerge.

    Lew Feldstein is the newly retired president of the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, he and Dr. Putnam authored “Bowling Alone” and are strong proponents of developing “Social Capital” the bonds that tie a community together–bonds that make communities safer, schools better and people healthier. When people are invested in their communities they are more likely to vote, volunteer and care for one another, say Putnam and Feldstein. Dr. Putnam’s seminal work focused world attention on social capital.

    Mr. Feldstein said at the annual meeting of his foundation, “I have said often that there is not, and never has been, another nation in the world that entrusts so much of its most important work to the volunteered time, energy, money and smarts of its citizens.”

    That’s where the Jaycess and the interest of the organization need to once again be rejuvinated.

    The demise of many civic and service organizations, like the Jaycees, is puzzling. Many of the things we offered as an organization have been picked up by other groups. The times changed, yet the demand for skilled leadership and involvement in our communities has not waned. Much of what I’ve seen on the college campus are young people working to acquire the essential personal skills, like what the Jaycees offered. But whatever our past glories, we have been unable to project those past successes into something meaningful to this new generation.

    President Obama said to a graduating class of college students, “It’s times like the ones you’re facing today that force us to try harder and dig deeper. Times like these move us to find the greatness we each have inside, and in doing so, rediscover the greatness that defines us as a nation.”

    It would seem that Jaycees old and new could rise to that challenge.

    Best regards,

    Jim Nielsen

    Comment by Jim Nielsen | August 8, 2010 | Reply

  4. Jim — Nice comment. I served at national haedquarters from 1985 to 1995.

    One thing that has eroded the appeal of Jaycees is the internet and social networking. Jaycees used to be the place to make contacts and build personal and professional relationships.

    Millennials are now able to do much of this through LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and a variety of online options.



    Comment by Dave Nershi | August 9, 2010 | Reply

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