The Critical 'I'

Read. React. Repeat.

Monday, April 12, 2004

It used to be that, when you were sent off to fight in a war, you would look forward to parlaying your service time into membership in a veterans' organization like the American Legion or Veterans of Foreign Wars. But as with most such groups, vets' organizations are struggling to attract new members as their existing ones die off.

There's a strange implication running through this piece that the lack of large-scale wars since Vietnam is a contributor to the dearth of veterans. The answer, then, is to get a few more wars going!

The real issue, though, is hit on toward the end:
"My parents were in Kiwanis and Rotary because at that time, it was important to join," [director of membership affairs for Vietnam Veterans of America Inc., Robert] Thomson said. "You made business contacts and networked. But because of the Internet and the way our lives have changed, a lot of people don't see that need as much anymore.

"Veterans service organizations face that same challenge."
While veterans' groups have unique challenges, they suffer from the same societal forces that have hurt all manner of fraternal organizations. I recall a thought-provoking discussion on this from years ago--I either read it in an article or two, or possibly heard a lecture on it while in college (I can't remember exactly when I actually experienced it). The roots of this decline extend well before the spread of the Internet, too.

Starting in the '70s, membership in organizations like lodges, rotaries and other networking gatherings just started dropping; they were seen as somewhat irrelevant to modern lifestyles. Doubtless, these groups were so hidebound from decades of automatic membership renewals and joinings that it never occurred to them to start aggressive recruitment until it was too late. Thus, their member rolls got grayer and grayer, which in turn made any efforts to bring in new blood that much harder--they were increasingly perceived as old-people clubs, thus repellent to younger potential recruits.

These days, the stereotype of a lodge member tends to be an old, white male, generally an old-fashioned fuddy-duddy. It used to be that, when you entered the workforce and started getting settled, you automatically joined some sort of neighborhood social club. Now, the images that come to my mind of such groupings are the caricatures from old-time TV: Ralph Cramden and his Loyal Order of Raccoons, Fred Flintstone and his Water Buffaloes, and Archie Bunker and his lodge (can't remember what order of animal his was). In other words, hopelessly square.

Is there a realistic chance for a revival for such clubs? A lot of their functions are taken over by strictly professional networks these days. You could even argue that inner-city gangs play the same role once performed by traditional fraternal associations. And today's nature of community--when families routinely move from city to city and state to state, and offspring tend to spread out across the county--seem to work against the maintenance of formal clubs (then again, I could see how that would be an opening for such organizations to stay relevant, by providing some cohesiveness). Organizations formed around specific criteria, like veterans' groups and ethnic/cultural clubs, would seem to have a better chance at survival, because they're better equipped to be advocacy groups as well. But that's only if they can convince potential members that it's in their longterm interests to join--a tall order.