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.
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.