I currently supervise a crew that spans five generations, with millennials (those born between 1980 and the late 1990s) abundantly represented. They have a different dynamic from generations past. I’ve struggled with their perceptions regarding the chain of command, their definition of a work ethic, and the need for instant reward. Recently I attended a webinar titled Manage Millennials and Keep Them Engaged, and my concerns were validated: this generation has me questioning how they can acclimate to the highly traditional, structured U.S. military. Here are some of the behaviors I’ve noticed:
• The younger generation postures to work only the bare minimum number of hours required. Additionally, they continuously request more time off in the form of early liberty, shorter workdays, the ability to go home after an office luncheon, and so on. This is aside from federal holidays and their 30 days’ annual leave.
• Upon hearing they would not be in-zone for promotion or advancement in a given year, these younger members declare they are fed up with the service and wish to resign. They have an expectation of accelerated advancement through the organization, without regard for the value that experience provides to those in leadership positions.
• There are an increased number of negative confrontations between very junior members and senior leadership. Rather than saying “Yes Sir” or “Yes Chief” when tasked with a project or simple task, our newer members frequently question why they have to do it.
• Customs and courtesies are eroding. Juniors are no longer smartly saluting seniors or verbally acknowledging higher ranks. On an almost daily basis, I hear, “Hi, how’s it going?”
• Texting is becoming the primary mode of communication. It has already become a means of jumping the chain of command as a condoned communication tool.
Like it or not, millennials will be the future senior leaders of our organization. Therefore, we must mentor them. The military structure, adherence to the chain of command, and our tireless, selfless acts to preserve the liberties this country enjoys today have served us well. The public values our service members because of the discipline and dedication they demonstrate. So how does our structured military culture adapt to this new generation?
First, we must educate them on the importance of patience in our systems. Promotion and advancement boards are designed to ensure that members are not advanced until they have the maturity and experience demanded of good leaders. Waiting one more year will only serve them better in the end, as they’ll be more equipped to take on increased levels of responsibility. If this doesn’t sit well with a young member, he or she should be subtly reminded of the current economy and associated unemployment rate.
They need to be “course-corrected” immediately if they show signs of insubordination or disrespect. If this does not happen, an unspoken compliance to the behavior is demonstrated, and it will continue, if not get worse. We must get back to basics. Customs and courtesies are the foundation of our military traditions. Personnel inspections should be increased. Members should be smartly stopped on the street if a proper salute isn’t rendered. Verbal salutations should be quickly corrected. Instead of “Hi,” demand “Good morning, Sir/Ma’am.”
They also need positive feedback early and often. Little gestures such as going to their offices and offering accolades for jobs well done gives encouraging reinforcement and the feedback for which they hunger.
These four practices may sound like common sense, to be expected of leaders today anyway. However, they are even more important with this new generation. And finally . . . this needs to be said: We must be prepared for the tough conversation. Will they truly be able to adapt to the service? Do they want to be a part of a service that honors traditions and structure? We take pride in the missions we perform, serving as humble servants to the public. If millennials are more focused on what’s in it for them, they may not be the right fit. They should be reminded that there’s a long line of people outside the door waiting for a Coast Guard spot.
While I embrace the fact that we have a new generation that’s better educated, technologically astute, and poised to preserve our nation’s liberties, I also hope we can find a middle ground that will capitalize on their strengths and preserve our proud traditions.