In this editorial from March 2015, Dr. Kevin J. Hanley writes that if leaders of dental organizations don’t come up with creative ways to attract the new generation of dentists, organized dentistry may be a thing of the past. This article is reprinted with permission from The New York State Dental Journal.

In January 2015, I attended the installation dinner of the Eighth District Dental Society. It was a pleasant evening, during which the officers were sworn in to lead the society through 2015 and life memberships were awarded to our fellow dentists who had reached 65 years of age and been members of the ADA for 30 consecutive years, or 40 years in total. As you might imagine, the crowd was a bit “gray,” much grayer even, I suspect, than when I first started attending these events. Notably absent were younger members. The more I thought about this later, the more alarmed I became. If we can’t attract young members, our organization is doomed.

Recent statistics show that the largest group of non-renewing members is people aged 30 to 39 years old, a group made up largely of millennials. I consulted a variety of online sources, hoping to get a better handle on who and what millennials are. What follows is what I gleaned from my research.

Millennials, it appears, are a unique subset of the population that interacts with the world in a totally different way than the generations before them. Millennials grew up in an era of increased safety concerns and were rarely left unsupervised. Their parents continually advocated on their behalf.

Despite all this, these are very confident people. They are motivated and they are goal oriented. They have a high level of optimism and they feel connected to their parents. They are assertive and team-oriented, more drawn to group than individual lifestyle. Indeed, they may sacrifice their own identities to be part of the group. They don’t believe in hierarchies, and they are more closely knit than previous generations. And, while they are team-oriented, they tend to exhibit this behavior within their own cohort, not with other generations. This may account for their reluctance to commit to organized dentistry. They might be willing to try it when they first graduate from dental school, but then sour on the hierarchal structure of the organization. On the plus side, they are oriented toward service and volunteerism.

Millennials set high goals for themselves, preferring achievement over personal development. They gravitate toward the fields of math and science, as opposed to the humanities and the arts favored by baby boomers. It is not uncommon for them to feel pressured. As they grew up, their schedules were highly structured. Every hour of every day was filled with specific activities. This has caused them to struggle with the allocation of free time and with time management in general. They are also likely to take on more than they can handle.

The final millennial trait worth mentioning is the respect they display toward others. Members of this generation are very civic minded. They also value their parents’ opinions highly. They believe in social rules and align with their parents on many issues, more so than previous generations.

Rising to the Challenge

How do we attract this crop of new professionals to organized dentistry? That is the $64,000 question. We have to make membership attractive to a generation of people who are totally different from us. We must think outside the box if we wish to keep organized dentistry a viable entity in the future.

Millennials are multitaskers. They desire challenges and variety. We need to find ways to tap into this, as it makes them ideal candidates for membership. And it starts with recognizing that millennials comprise the most connected generation ever. They have grown up with new technologies and are comfortable using them. They constantly check social media outlets. If organized dentistry isn’t relevant on social media channels, they will ignore us. Utilize their knowledge to get better at the social media aspects of membership.

They are also tech-savvy. We have to make our communications available on all platforms. We can use our younger members to help us achieve this goal. They’re looking for work-life balance and flexibility. They don’t want to sacrifice their personal lives for career advancement. They expect a flexible work environment. They also like to support various causes. We must appeal to their sense of commitment to the goals of dentistry and organized dentistry. One reason many may have chosen dentistry is the flexibility it affords. We shouldn’t infringe on their sense of balance as we ask them to become active in organized dentistry. We will have to rethink the ways we accomplished things in the past. That may not work with these members.

One aspect of organized dentistry we can use to attract millennials is their spirit of teamwork. They enjoy collaborating with others and building friendships. We must let them know there will be plenty of opportunities to collaborate with others and build long-lasting friendships. We all have benefited from these opportunities and friendships throughout our professional careers. Share this information with young dentists you know.

[Former] ADA Executive Director Kathleen O’Loughlin spoke eloquently to this at the ADA House of Delegates meeting this past fall in San Antonio. She said she recognizes the importance of young dentists to the future of the ADA. And she understands that the ADA must evolve to attract them to the organization. We can no longer operate as we have in the past, she emphasized. To do so will be the death of our organization.

If you know any young dentists, mentor them. Discuss the importance of organized dentistry in their professional lives. They see the world differently than we do. Learn from them, as well. Keep an open mind. Establish lines of communication. Get them involved in organized dentistry in any way you can. Adapt what we do to what they do. If we become irrelevant to them, our organization will become irrelevant. That would be a disservice to all the dentists who went before us and to those who will come after us.

For information on joining the American Dental Association (ADA), the New York State Dental Association (NYSDA) or your local component society, visit the NYSDA membership page. For more dental news, visit our blog and follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn.