Youngsters aren’t joiners
The president began the meeting by departing from the usual agenda. Normally, after bringing the gavel down to start the latest meeting of his local Probus club in southwestern Ontario, Rod Devitt would invite members say hello and shake hands with the members next to them. But this time Rod had a special guest to introduce.
“Gentlemen, I’d like you to meet Preston,” Devitt said. “He’s slightly underage for our club, but today he’s celebrating his 12th birthday.”
It was the Monday morning meeting of Devitt’s Probus Burlington Lakeshore Club. A hundred members had come out, in part, to hear a talk/presentation based on one of my books, but largely because they enjoy what they call “fellowship.” Devitt and his members have all mostly retired from their professional or business careers. With plenty of time on their hands, they enjoy conversation, outings, socializing and hearing guest speakers. But most are over 60, some in their 80s. Devitt’s guest, 12-year-old Preston, was a military buff and his birthday present was to miss school and catch one of my talks.
“We’re grooming him for membership down the road,” Devitt quipped.
He’d better. I’m no demographer, but I sense that all around us, organizations that require volunteer membership to perpetuate themselves are finding it tougher and tougher to recruit younger members. It’s certainly true in some churches, service clubs, associations, youth groups and even trade unions. Surveys show that young professional people avoid associations because they think they’re the exclusive domain of management. Young, incoming members of trade unions don’t participate actively in the movements that represent their workforces because they feel powerless and oppressed by global forces and dismissed by their bosses. Young women seeking to join such adventure groups as Girl Guides have found clubs shutting down because the number of volunteer leaders is dwindling.
“Around 70,000 young people are missing out on the chance to make friends, have adventures and improve skills such as confidence,” explained one Girl Guide representative in the U.K., “because of the shortage of people willing to give their time.”
These days in Canada, I don’t sense younger people have an affinity to join anything. Even our own local, Sunday adult recreational hockey league has suffered from youth apathy. While the ranks of the non-contact, no slapshot leagues aged over-40 and over-50 have enjoyed an explosion in the number of participants, rec teams aged under-40 are shrinking.
The same dearth of youth is evident among branches of the Royal Canadian Legion. In Canada over the last quarter century, the Legion was composed largely of veterans of the Second World War and the Korean War. More recently, Canadian branches are losing about 8,000 members a year, mostly due to natural deaths of their members. Younger vets don’t feel the attraction of their older brethren. One younger vet told the York Guardian newspaper, “They had a lot of associate members (non-veterans at the branch) and I didn’t have much in common with the people there.”
Just this week, I made a presentation to another Probus Club in Muskoka. Located in one of Ontario’s growing retirement communities, its membership, mostly aged 65 and up, is flourishing. During the business part of the meeting on Tuesday, the club president presented a notice of motion. At the club’s upcoming AGM, members will be asked to vote on whether to expand membership from 175 to 200; the membership chair said there was already a waiting list of 25.
“We may be older, but we’re growing,” he said. Probus Clubs are a spinoff of Rotary International; the first was established in 1966 in Caterham, England. Today, Probus Clubs boast more than 4,000 local chapters worldwide, with a total membership of more than 400,000 men and women. The club’s apparent founder, Rotarian Harold Blanchard, explained the club’s origin.
“One of our more erudite members came up with the idea of PROBUS, or PROfessional BUSiness,” Blanchard said, “assuring us that PROBUS was a Latin word from which came ‘probity’ (uprightness, honesty, high-principled).”
Whether upright and honest or not, Probus Clubs appear to be thriving among retirees wanting to stay engaged. For some reason, however, young people do not feel the same compunction to join in. No matter, as far as Rod Devitt, is concerned. In jest, but aware that social organizations today only survive if they recruit successfully, Devitt handed his 12-year-old guest Preston a membership sign-up form.
“Don’t worry, Preston,” he said. “You can take the next 65 years or so to complete your membership application.”
For more Barris Beat columns, go to www.tedbarris.com