Generational Change and the 'Stay-or-Go' Question

By Captain Michael Junge, U.S. Navy

An “Artist” is born during the crisis in which the “Hero” comes of age. In the crisis, social complexity gives way to consensus, social institutions strengthen, and “Artist” children grow up to be conformist young adults. In midlife, they focus on process and often seek to relive what they see as a lost youth. As the G.I.s grew older, the “Silent Generation” followed them. Born between 1925 and 1942, the leading members of this generation were commissioned around 1950 and began to finish their initial service obligations between 1955 and 1960.

A “Prophet” is born after the crisis, in a time when social institutions are strong; community life has coalesced around the consensus brought on by the crisis. “Prophet” children become self-absorbed crusaders in a time of societal change. “Prophets” inspire rather than act; they are principled moralists who wage idealistic wars and lead others to sacrifice. Early Silent-Generation “Artists” were mid-career officers when the Baby Boomer “Prophets” arrived in the Fleet and were flag officers by the time Gen X entered service. Born between 1943 and 1960, the “Prophets” of the Baby Boom generation got their first commissions around 1965, and their accessions continued until the mid-1980s. Able to make their first “stay-or-go” decisions in the early 1970s, those who remained now occupy all the positions in the Joint Chiefs of Staff through to the most junior flag officers.

A “Nomad” is born during the societal change led by the crusading “Prophets.” As “Prophets” wage their moral wars against institutions and the established order, the “Nomads” are left underprotected and are alienated in the new social order. They mature to be pragmatic midlife leaders in the inevitable crisis and emerge as resilient leaders who hand society off to the competent leadership of the “Heroes,” who cycle in anew after them. Generation X “Nomads” were born between 1960 and 1982. Beginning service in the mid-’80s, Xers now comprise 31 percent of those who serve in the armed forces. Gen X members were able to make their initial retention decisions in the early to mid-1990s.

The various archetypes are descriptive rather than prescriptive, and while reference dates are helpful, there is no hard-and-fast start or end date for each generation. Similarly, service culture has great sway over the ability of each generation to subscribe to the overall generational descriptors. For example, Generation X’s rebellious and nonconformist tendencies are significantly tempered within the military, but they exist even in their lesser form. To some degree, Xers in the military display or adopt some Boomer characteristics as military Boomers adopted Silent and G.I. characteristics that were brought into service culture. Each generation has also subtly altered service culture while growing through it.


In 1951 Time magazine wrote for the first time on the rising generation:

Youth today is waiting for the hand of fate to fall on its shoulders, meanwhile working fairly hard and saying almost nothing. The most startling fact about the younger generation is its silence. With some rare exceptions, youth is nowhere near the rostrum. By comparison with the Flaming Youth of their fathers & mothers, today’s younger generation is a still, small flame. It does not issue manifestoes, make speeches or carry posters. It has been called the “Silent Generation.” But what does the silence mean? What, if anything, does it hide? Or are youth’s elders merely hard of hearing? 1

In 1957, Commander Russell S. Crenshaw Jr. wrote an article in Proceedings titled “Why We Are Losing Our Junior Officers.” At the time, Crenshaw was in command of the Navy’s newest destroyer, had a well-tuned crew, a superb wardroom, and no indications that his officers had any intentions other than a Navy career—until he asked them.

Over time he learned that most planned to leave the service. When he queried other commanding officers, he learned they were experiencing the same phenomenon. Crenshaw’s unscientific study was the first to provide any indication why officers leave the service. Surprisingly, pay was not the major concern; at least not junior-officer pay. Rather, the junior officers looked to their captains and found that the pay at that level was far short when compared with the responsibility of the rank. As one of them noted, “The material rewards in the long run for the work and devotion required of a career officer are completely out of line.” 2

What the junior officers really had issue with were a lack of prestige, a promotion system that prized longevity over performance, incessant paperwork, and family separation.

Crenshaw was witnessing the beginning of the transition from “Heroes” to “Artists,” from G.I.s to Silents. His junior officers’ desires to leave the service were the beginning of the modern transition between generations.

In 1961 Navy Supply Corps Lieutenant Commander F. I. Woodworth wrote his Naval Postgraduate School thesis on officer retention. “The Career Decision” supported Crenshaw’s proposition that prestige was a driving factor in the decision to leave the Navy. Woodworth also found that when general business conditions are good, men are more apt to seek careers in civilian society, especially those who came from somewhat affluent families. In his survey of 670 junior officers, Woodworth found that prestige was the number-one reason officers sought a commission. Service to country was number ten. Of those who chose to leave as soon as they could, their major reasons for joining were, first, a military obligation, followed by prestige. For those who chose to remain beyond their first tour, travel had been their number-one reason to join. Whether an officer chose to remain in the Navy or leave, family separation was cited as the biggest drawback. 3

In 1965 the Naval Personnel Program Support Activity conducted an official survey on junior-officer retention. The study of 2,651 officers found that the most important reason to resign a commission was “limited home life” followed by “poor utilization of abilities and skills.” Like Woodworth, excessive administration was a key factor for those who left the service. In areas that the Navy could improve, the surveyed officers indicated a need for increased prestige and a desire for more time at home. 4

By the early 1970s there was much social upheaval among Baby Boomers as they protested against the Vietnam War and the draft. The Navy saw race riots at sea, and the entire military shifted from conscription to an all-volunteer force. With all that going on, apparently no one had time to think about junior-officer retention in the surface fleet. Anecdotally, officers from that time saw a leadership that didn’t care about retention.

The late 1970s gave way to the heady 1980s as the Lehman-Reagan Navy buildup opened the floodgates on ship construction and increased the prestige of the naval officer. The end of the Cold War, Tailhook, and the Bush-Clinton drawdown brought the euphoria to a sober and crashing halt, setting the stage for interest in the Generation X “Nomads” as they left the Navy at every chance they could get.

X Factors?

While Crenshaw and Woodworth saw a problem and wrote about it, the half-dozen articles between 1950 and 1980, or the half-dozen studies in the 1980s, pale when compared with the dozens of articles and theses written between 1995 and 2002.

What made GenX different? What other factors might have influenced Generation X’s decisions to leave the service?

The Silent Generation’s initial impact on retention was in the mid to late 1950s—after they entered the Fleet and completed their initial service obligations. Baby Boomers had their initial impact in the mid-’70s, Gen Xers in the mid- to late ’90s. A look at the economy, population, Fleet size, retention statistics, and generational interaction provide more insight into the differences between the transitions.

Economic factors. The U.S. economy was in recession between 1957 and 1958 with unemployment for college-educated men rising from 1.8 to 3.1 percent. After a two-year recovery, in April 1960 the United States entered a recession that lasted for ten months. That recession was followed by the second-longest economic expansion in U.S. history, lasting from February 1961 to December 1969. During this period, unemployment for college-educated men fell to 1 percent.

The longest period of economic expansion ran from 1991 to 2001 and arguably can be linked to the expansion period that lasted from 1982 to 1990. Those two decades saw one eight-month recession markedly different from the 49 months of recessions between 1970 and 1982.

Between 1983 and 2000, unemployment for college-educated men fell continuously, rising briefly in 2002 and 2003 before dropping until 2007. Between 2007 and 2009, however, the unemployment rate shot up from 2 to 4.6 percent—a rate of change not seen elsewhere in the postwar period.

Fleet size. The Navy consistently shrank in the decades following World War II, however, overall Fleet size alone is a poor indicator of the health of the service. In the case of Fleet size, perception is far stronger than reality. Junior officers care little that the Navy is large if the ship they are on is old and poorly maintained. Likewise, as Commander Crenshaw learned, just being on a new ship is not enough to entice officers to remain in the Navy. The annual growth of the Fleet provides an additional indication of the Navy’s apparent health. Knowing that the Navy is building many new ships is an unambiguous signal to junior officers that leadership is interested in the Navy’s future, and by extension, their future.

Between 1954 and 1960 the Navy shrank by 300 ships. Between 1968 and 1977 it shrank by 500! By contrast, the much-talked-about drawdown in the early ’90s only saw a 200-ship reduction—from a 1989 high of 566 to a decelerated drawdown at 354 ships in 1997. Today’s Navy has now stabilized after the longest continuous drawdown of the postwar era. At this point, there is no indication that the Fleet will increase significantly, and more than 40 percent of today’s vessels are expected to remain in service over the next 30 years. For Generation X, the days when they were first commissioned were as big as the Navy would get, and they knew that as soon as 1995.

Retention statistics. Bureau of Personnel data from 1975 to 2010 show surface-warfare JO retention at the nine-year mark averages 30 percent. However, the year groups from 1975 to 1984 are all above the average, while the year groups from 1985 to 1994 are below the average. Five of those year groups—1986, 1987, 1988, 1990, and 1991—had lost more than 75 percent of their cohort by the nine-year mark. Those year groups are the leading edge of Generation X.

As stark as those numbers are, between 1967 and 1973 the retention for surface-warfare officers beyond their minimum service requirement dropped from 20 percent to 14 percent. 5 Those retention rates were significantly lower than those in the era that saw the concerns over retaining Generation X.

‘Old Guy vs. Young Guy’ and Stay-or-Go

While most retention studies focus in on what’s been discussed so far—individual motivations, economic factors, Fleet size—one aspect that fits into the generational-transitions question that is not normally addressed is the generation gap between the junior officer and senior officer, and how the generational traits of each affect that gap. More than just a “young guy vs. old guy” argument, how does the Silent Generation senior-officer policy-maker affect the Gen X junior-officer retain-or-attrit decision-maker?

In 1957, as the Silent Generation was making its decision and G.I. Generation member Commander Crenshaw was writing, the leadership of the Navy were members of the Lost Generation. Elder Lost Generation leaders would have been pragmatic “Nomads” who had survived World War II. In military culture, these “Nomads” would have accepted the consensus-building G.I. Generation “Heroes” and the Silent Generation process-oriented conformists as their successors. In 1957, the Chief of Naval Operations was Admiral Arleigh A. Burke. Born in 1901, he was a late–Lost Generation “Nomad.” He was preceded by Admiral Robert Carney, born in 1895, also a Lost Generation “Nomad.” In 1961 Burke was succeeded by Admiral George Anderson, born in 1906, an early–G.I. Generation “Hero.” G.I.s dominated the service leadership for 21 years, Silents held it for 17, and if trends hold true, Boomers will lead the Navy for 25—longer even than G.I.s.

As Boomers challenged the status quo, G.I. elder leaders would have sought to preserve the consensus wrought from World War II. As Boomers remade the world into the image they desired, they alienated the Xers who came behind them. Alienated and ignored, Xers chafed against both the enforced conformity of the G.I.s and the idealism of the aging Boomers.

From 1965 to 1970, when Baby Boomers first went to sea, the country was nearing the end of record economic expansion, the Vietnam War was at its height, and Fleet size was in free-fall. As Boomers reached the point of decision, the economy swung from growth to recession and back again, and retention was the lowest recorded, then or since. Despite overall interest in Navy morale and media recognition of declining officer retention, there was apparently no concern inside the Navy, at any level, over the poor retention.

From 1985 to 1995, the country was in a record expansion period, the Fleet had grown and shrunk again, and retention dropped to critical lows—but not as low as the late ’60s and early ’70s.

The only two differences between the Boomer and Xer experiences were the total size of the Navy and the economy. When Boomers had their chance to leave, they did—and in droves. The Navy had three times as many ships and was cutting rapidly, easily absorbing the departures. Furthermore, with a bad or uncertain economy, no one really took notice. Xers, leaving a smaller and shrinking Navy to enter into a growing economy, engendered much interest.

Perhaps a decade of war with a service-oriented generation, or the economic downturn, or both, is why so little has been written about the rise of the Millennials. With an average 32.8 percent retention among surface-warfare officers in the lead Millennials, a coming drawdown, and unemployment of college graduates the highest in two decades, it is unlikely that this generational change will draw the same interest as the last.

The Cycle Begins Anew

As the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq fade into history, the first Millennials are at the point to start making decisions about staying or leaving. If the economy remains in recession, or roller-coasters as it did in the 1970s, we may never hear more of Millennials and their retention. If the economy recovers and moves into a 1960s or 1990s expansion period, then Navy leadership will gain one more challenge—the retention of the Millennial generation.

Millennials, who in 2005 were only a third of the force, now make up 64 percent of those serving and mark the return of the “Hero” archetype. Today’s force breaks down thus: Boomers are flag officers, Xers are senior officers (commanders and captains) and Millennials are junior officers (lieutenant commanders and junior). The next five years will see the entry of the first of the “Homeland Generation” as well as the first GenX flag officers. Historical trends indicate that Boomers will continue to hold the top positions of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and service chiefs for the next eight to ten years.

There is no doubt that we are hearing, and seeing, more of Millennials. Naval Warfare Development Command’s Junior Officer Symposium was a clear showcase of rising Millennial influence. Presenters Lieutenant Ben Kohlmann and Lieutenant Commander B. J. Armstrong are published authors, respected bloggers, and influential junior officers—and a late-phase Xer and early Millennial respectively. The popular Military Traveler App for iOS was developed and launched by a group of Millennial JOs. Cusp-Millennial and former JO Alex Fleming self-published a memoir of his time in the submarine force. The newly formed Center for International Maritime Security was founded by a group of Millennial JOs.

With Millennial JOs only now reaching the point of inflection for their career decisions, it is time for the Navy to think, and act, on what the Navy of the future must look like to retain the best and brightest of the coming generation.

No matter what Baby Boomers may think, they cannot control the economy. Nor does anyone know how long the current downturn will last. There is only so much Navy leadership can do about Fleet size at this point. What Navy leadership can control is how Millennials are treated, how to maximize what they need and minimize what they don’t want. So how would the Navy go about building a culture for Millennials? Through three prisms—Boomers, Xers, and Millennials.

Boomers, today’s flag officers, should bring back the Junior Officer Survey and do it annually. In 1999 the surface-warfare leadership conducted its own survey, the results of which led to significant changes for the entire community. Inaugurated with great fanfare, the survey results were routinely published over the next decade. The survey apparently was discontinued after it was last done in 2008; those results were never released. Without a Junior Officer Survey there is no ready mechanism for Navy leadership to understand what affects Millennials. Certainly what appealed to those Boomers who are still on active duty is different from what appealed to the Generation X officers who remained, and if those two groups seek to copy what worked to keep them in, they are likely to fall short of their goals.

Xers, today’s captains and commanders, need to have some empathy for the position that Millennials are in, and remember that the world they are in as junior officers is not the same world as it was when the Xers were JOs.

And as for you Millennials: Take an interest in yourself if no one else does. You are the Navy’s future; read and write. Read about Navy history, shipbuilding, operations, organization. There is little happening today that has not, to some degree, already been dealt with in the 236 years of U.S. Navy history. But your circumstances as Millennials are nonetheless unique and must be dealt with in your own way. Write about your experiences. Write about why you are in the Navy. Write about why you are staying. Or leaving. But write, so that others may read.

1. “People: The Younger Generation,” Time , 5 November 1951,,9171,856950,00.html .

2. CDR Russell S. Crenshaw Jr. , U.S. Navy, “Why We Are Losing Our Junior Officers?” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings , February 1957: 127–32.

3. LCDR F. I. Woodworth,  U.S. Navy, “The Career Decision” (Monterey, CA: Naval Postgraduate School thesis, 1961).

4. Victor Fields, “Why USN Officers Resign from the Navy,”  Survey of Junior Officer Retention (Washington, DC: Naval Personnel Research Laboratory, 1965).

5. LCDR Thomas J. Lopez, U.S. Navy, “Retention of Junior Officers in the Surface Navy,” (Monterey, CA: Naval Postgraduate School thesis, 1973).

Captain Junge, a career surface-warfare officer who commanded the USS Whidbey Island (LSD-41), is currently a student at the Naval War College.


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