The 45-Yard Line

Let me start by saying that this would be a perfect American football analogy if I could use the number 50 instead of 45, but unfortunately, that’s just not how this works.

Though if we all wait another five years, it will be.

For now, imagine a football field with a 45-yard line right in the middle. (This football field is only 90 yards long in total. Go with me here.) Now, standing on the 45-yard line, you can go in one of two directions. If you go in one direction and get all the way to the end zone, you score points for one team. If you go in the other direction and get all the way to the end zone, you score points for the other team. In both cases, the objective is pretty much the same…dodge the obstacles, be agile, work as a team, get to the end zone. But to score points for one team, you’ve got to go one way, and to score points for the other team, you have to go in the opposite direction.

In the actual game of football, the two teams are competing. One group of people wants to score points for one side, and the other group of people wants to score points for the other side. Because it’s a competition, it’s a zero-sum game. One team scores points at the cost of the other.

In the past year, I’ve found myself in Quaker circles making lots of arguments about what I think of as the “over/under 45 strategy.” (Hence, the 45-yard line.) Essentially, my premise is that in modern society, we have a generation gap unlike any other in history. It’s not about these crazy kids and their music; it’s about a fundamental change in our way of thinking.

People who are 45 this year were born somewhere around the year 1972. This means that they were finishing high school in about the year 1990. While the Internet technically started in 1965 and first received its name in 1973, the early ‘90s were the time when the Internet went from a scientific laboratory thing to an actually-in-people’s-homes kind of thing—in other words, right when today’s 45-year-olds were either in college or starting their first full-time jobs. Both socially and neurologically, today’s 45-year-olds were moving into adulthood during the Internet’s first five to seven years. (The prefrontal cortex doesn’t finish developing until you’re nearly thirty.)

40-year-olds went to high school with the Internet; 35-year-olds, middle school; 30-year-olds do not remember a time without it. 25-year-olds don’t recall a world without smartphones. 20-year-olds were born after the invention of social media.

None of this is to say that people over 45 can’t be good at the Internet. Some people over 45 are extraordinarily proficient and spend a great deal of time online. But there is a difference between skills we learn as fully-formed adults and activities that influence the physical formation of our brains. There’s a reason why advertisers target teens and twenty-somethings; it’s because habits formed in those years tend to persist for a lifetime.

Scientists are still struggling to define the effects of Internet exposure during brain development. But there’s a fair amount of evidence that those under 45 process information in fundamentally different ways. For one thing, under-45s tend to sort information for relevance very quickly; this is the result of a lot of scanning, such as scrolling rapidly through a social media feed. Under-45s generally require more visual stimulation and struggle to learn from large bodies of text. They are less likely to develop a long and trusting relationship with a particular source of information, partly because Google searches and social media feeds link to websites and periodicals but don’t emphasize origin; it’s easy to read an article and never notice, much less recall, whether it came from the Washington Post or Huffington Post, from Buzzfeed or somebody’s blog. And there’s a tendency toward instant gratification. Under-45s expect to find the answers to questions within seconds.

I don’t find it terribly useful to focus on whether this is all good or bad. It simply is. And it is in abundance; some studies have discovered that exposure to the Internet causes neurological responses similar to heroin use. It isn’t going away.

So what does this boil down to?

Over 45 Under 45 Comparison

Let’s go back to our football game.

There you are on the 45-yard line. If you want to score a point for the under-45s, you’ve got to run one way—social media, photos, videos, impact storytelling, quick access to knowledge. If you want to score a point for the over-45s, you’ve got to run the other way—paper, phone calls, long pieces of text, institutional loyalty, building knowledge over time.

But are we happy with the idea of this being a zero-sum game? What happens if we want both sides to get points? I’d say that we have to decide this isn’t a competition, and we have to learn how to run both ways simultaneously. We might need two footballs. We might need more players. But for sure, we have to commit to cooperation.

When I talk about an over/under 45 strategy, I’m usually talking about either communications, fundraising, and outreach. The same principles might apply in religious education or pastoral care, but not to the same degree of intensity. An over/under 45 strategy is, at its heart, a bifurcated strategy. It’s doing quite different things, with the same ultimate intent, in order to reach both age ranges.

Let’s look first at communications. In Quaker circles, communications happen locally and at large-scale institutional levels. An over-45 communications strategy would mostly involve printed newsletters, with the same newsletters in the same format often emailed or posted on a website. Articles might be lengthy. Font, format, and illustrations would be less important, as long as the text was legible. Announcements would appear in list form. Content would emphasize the activities of the institution because the readership is likely to be interested in the institution, even if they themselves aren’t participating in the work.

An under-45 communications strategy, in contrast, would mostly involve social media (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, possibly Tumblr or Pinterest). Articles would be short and would contain mostly content directly relevant to the reader—or, if the content were not directly relevant, it would be single-story narratives with an emphasis on personal impact. Announcements would come out through messenger apps or text messages, with a strong element of user control about which announcements to receive and which not. Photos and videos would be used frequently.

An over/under 45 strategy is tricky because you can’t take the same content and post it on multiple platforms. Most of us know instinctively that you couldn’t take a bunch of Facebook posts, print them out, and call them a newsletter. But similarly, you can’t take a newsletter produced for print or email and simply paste a link on social media. An under-45 generally will not click on a link labeled “newsletter” because there’s nothing in that to indicate personal relevance. But the same under-45 might follow a link to a single article with a strong title and a vibrant illustration. The under-45 is also looking for additional links. If one article references another, there should be a built-in hyperlink to the second article. That serves the under-45’s expectation of instant information.

Fundraising, too, requires a bifurcated strategy. Over-45s have been trained, over their lifetimes, to establish and maintain long-term relationships with institutions. I trust this institution; therefore, I give money. Direct mail campaigns are effective, as are annual funds. Fundraising efforts might include long pieces of text written abstractly about the organization’s mission and intent. Over-45s are okay with writing checks, and they’re prepared to stamp their donation envelopes.

In contrast, under-45s have been trained, through Internet exposure and through a changing job market, not to establish or maintain long-term institutional relationships. Under-45s habitually hop from one institution to another according to which one best matches their current needs and interests. Capturing this audience requires impact storytelling, published on social media, with as many photos and videos as possible. “We are providing education to 200 children” is interesting, but it isn’t enough. A two-minute video of the school, in which a story is told about the direct impact the education has on the life of a child, is much more compelling. So, too, is immediacy. The under-45 thinks, I know where my donation is going and see it having immediate impact; therefore, I give money. A specific fundraising goal is important, and it helps to have an Internet-based indicator: can I see the exact percentage of the goal that’s been raised? Can I see a list of which of my friends have already donated? Under-45s often don’t write checks. Many of them don’t even have checks. They expect to donate instantly by credit card—on their smartphones.

By now, the difference in outreach strategies should be pretty evident. Over-45s might see a newspaper ad or hear a radio commercial and investigate. They might decide to visit your Quaker meeting even with very little information ahead of time—because they grew up learning things slowly, from books and encyclopedias. If your website has a collection of long articles about Quakerism, over-45s might actually read them. They also might take home and read lengthy pamphlets at the end of a first visit.

Under-45s will find you if you’re present on social media—or, at the very least, if you have a sufficiently strong website and pop up pretty high in local Google searches. They’ll want to see lots of photos of the people in the meeting, not a single thirty-year-old drawing of your historic building. They’re likely to click on a video titled “What is Quakerism?” or something along those lines, and if there isn’t a video, they want a FAQ page with clear answers to specific questions, so they can scan through and read what’s relevant to them instead of trying to process lengthy articles. Some under-45s will read in depth, eventually, but only if you provide easily scan-able information first.

It’s hard work to develop and enact over/under 45 strategies—in fact, it’s basically twice as much work. And people on both sides of the 45-yard line tend to find the other side mystifying, not to mention irritating—why don’t they just put out a little more effort? We wouldn’t need two strategies if that other age group would just learn to be flexible!

But it’s beyond flexibility. We are wired differently. Our brains work differently. If we want to reach both groups, we must learn to cooperate and to move in both directions simultaneously. Because we can’t abandon our over-45s, those who have been—and often still are—the lifeblood of our communities. But we also can’t ignore the under-45s, who will soon be the under-50s, and then the under-55s, and so on…at least, we can’t ignore them if we hope to have a future.

5 thoughts on “The 45-Yard Line

  1. Quaker Speak a project of Friends Journal speaks to the under 45 as the Friends Journal speaks to the over 45. I am 68 and I also enjoy the Quaker Speak videos.

  2. We’re rapidly approaching the 50-yard line, and I am still thinking about and recommending this piece frequently! I’d be really curious to read about or discuss sometime how this has and hasn’t changed in the past few years. I think many of the specifics have shifted in measurable ways (to over-simplify: increasing numbers of older folks learning to use digital tools, especially during the pandemic– while still using them differently than younger people; fewer people under 30 on Facebook; what looks to me like a declining effectiveness of email in general, that also looks to me like it has some correlation with age/generation… probably lots more things that aren’t coming to me off the top of my head).

    Anyway, thanks for writing something that has had so much ongoing relevance for me!

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