Thursday, January 21, 2010

Generation Y's Impact On Military Culture

I was forwarded a very interesting article today by friend and fellow blogger Al Chase entitled Military of Millennials. Al, who maintains the blog The White Rhino Report, sent the article to a group of Gen Y'ers for their thoughts on the thesis of the piece which is centered around the cultural impact of Generation Y on the US military. It is a long article but definitely an interesting read (full article here). There were a few things that really struck me in this article and although I don't necessarily agree wholeheartedly with everything that is presented, I am definitely seeing some of these trends within my sphere of influence.

The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) took an unprecedented step on May 15, 2007, blocking troop access to MySpace, YouTube, and other popular Web sites. The official reason was to conserve bandwidth and safeguard security. But the DOD’s ban also highlighted a gap in understanding between senior military leaders and what demographers call Generation Y (alternatively known as the millennial generation or the baby-boom echo). Few members of this generation, born after 1978, can recall a time when the Internet was not at their disposal.

Not long ago, one of the authors of this article was asked to lead a U.S. Air Force study on the implications for the military of this new online generation. The request came from senior officers who had been appalled to discover a number of junior officers using the still permissible Facebook Web site for the purpose of organizing their squadrons. These senior officers were having difficulty with the concept of using a civilian social-networking site for military purposes. What would that mean for military security? How would it affect the control and vulnerability of squadrons in the field? And from the perspective of DOD “middle management,” what was a major supposed to do? Forbid the behavior and risk losing the real benefits of an online community? Or protect it and risk the wrath of more senior officers who just didn’t understand?

This kind of conundrum is relevant not just for the U.S. military. A wide range of organizations, including most global corporations, will soon face a large, new cohort of young employees. Generation Y’s affinity for the interconnected world is just one of its intriguing characteristics.

Although the start of this article is a little weird and I think it is a bit of a stretch to connect senior leader's inability to manage Gen Y with blocking Facebook in a work environment, the article does does highlight one trait that is very important to understanding the demographic; enhanced interconnectedness. The youth of today definitely has a desire to be connected to more people than any generation prior. The internet has proved to be a catalyst to not only satisfy that desire, but to expand the ability of people to maintain more relationships than ever before. Not only can people now keep a handle on social connections, but they can create relationships and build communities that would never have existed otherwise.

Generation gaps are not new to the military, of course, or to the culture at large. The Vietnam era was defined by the distinctly different attitudes between the 20-year-old draftees and the older career officers and senior enlisted men who commanded them. More recently, a report issued on February 15, 2000, by the vice chief of staff of the U.S. Army noted that the rate of voluntary attritions among captains had risen sharply, and the report cited generational differences as a chief reason. “Senior officers think they understand the world of lieutenants and captains,” the report observed, “but many junior officers and others are convinced that they do not.” As an example of these differences, the report cited senior officers’ “careerism” and dogged loyalty to the military as opposed to junior officers’ preference for a better work–life balance. To the typical junior officer, it noted, “being an Army officer is a noble profession…not an all-consuming source of self-identity.”

The report presciently foresaw the U.S. military’s current dif ficulties with recruiting and retention, exacerbated by its expanded involvements in Iraq and Afghanistan. Because of Generation Y’s significantly larger numbers, and because its attitudes have been shaped by unique circumstances, these young men and women will provide distinctly different challenges and opportunities for the military, the business world, and every other kind of organization that they enter.

I really think these paragraphs are spot on in the challenges that have already begun to manifest within the ranks of the military. Gone are the days of corporate loyalty to the worker. Gone are the days where our elected leader's promises and programs can be counted on. And most importantly gone are the days where the youth of America believes that the key to a happy life is putting in endless hours at the same job for decades at a time. And can you really blame them? We have watched our parents and noticed the discrepancies between the world they grew up in and what we are living in. The generational quest for a better work life balance is real, and I would argue that it is powerful. The military is not only faced with this new reality, but it is handcuffed by stringent budgets, manning cuts, and two wars. Not easy to overcome and I would atrribute the aforementioned attrition more to those factors than leadership's inability to relate or manage Gen Y officers. That being said, the culture shift is something that I think has and will continue to shape the armed forces in the future.

Two of the most prominent theorists of generational change, historian and satirist Bill Strauss and histo rian and demographer Neil Howe, have suggested in their book Millennials Rising (Vintage, 2000) that Gen Y may be something of a throwback to its grandparents’ generation — the generation that grew up in the Depression, fought in World War II, and came home to build a powerful national economy along with strong, effective community institutions.

Like their grandparents, millennials appear deeply committed to family, community, and teamwork, which they have made priorities. Among middle-class high school and college students, volunteering for nonprofit work has become almost the norm. (In many states, it is now a school requirement.) After college, this generation is competing for places in organizations like the Peace Corps and Teach for America in extraordinary numbers, even as the military struggles to attract them. Indeed, the research summarized by Strauss and Howe (in their book and in the Harvard Business Review, July–August 2007) suggests that this new generation may in fact be more civic- and family-oriented than any since World War II, reversing long-term trends toward in­creased rates of criminal activity, drug use, and teen pregnancy.

It would appear, therefore, that if the current leadership in the public and private sectors learns to accept, deploy, and manage Generation Y effectively, the millennials could even provide an echo of the grit and selfless heroism that inspired journalist Tom Brokaw to label their grandparents “the greatest generation.” On the other hand, if the leadership fails to understand and adapt — if it insists on harnessing millennials with outdated mind-sets, rules, and processes — it could squander a historic opportunity to reinvigorate the military and rekindle an idealistic, can-do spirit in a wide variety of institutions.

I thought this passage was a great reminder that things do not always get worse. People are almost predispositioned to look at those that come after them with great concern as if the youth of tomorrow is destined to lead our nation down a path of destruction. Whether it is generational identity, politics, or the stock market people always think the sky is falling so it is great to see an author acknowledge that Gen Y are not just a band of miscreants and that they in fact have a unique skill set to provide besides just unique challenges. Perhaps the reinvigorated family value system that the author describes can be attributed at least in part to some of the generational traits expressed in Gen Y like the affinity for interconnectedness discussed earlier.

Gen Y’s familiarity with the interconnected world suggests that its members will respond enthusiastically to management styles that encourage creativity and initiative, and that they will be comfortable working in teams. Millennials exhibit characteristics likely to render them facile and effective decision makers, especially in combat situations, where decentralized operations are paramount. They are also adept at gathering information and sharing it with peers. The U.S. military has long struggled to smooth interservice rivalries and achieve better working relations between military and intelligence operations. Corporations face similar challenges in getting people to work together fluidly and productively across functional, regional, and operational boundaries. Might Gen Y, with its deeply ingrained habits of openness and teamwork, eventually succeed in breaking down some of these barriers?

In other ways, those deeply ingrained habits challengees tablished organizational values. To command-and-control organizations like the military (and many corporations), knowledge is power and, therefore, something to be protected — or even hoarded. To Gen Y, however, knowledge is something altogether different; it belongs to everyone and creates a basis for building new relationships and fostering dialogue. Baby boomers and Gen Xers have learned to use the Internet to share information with people whom they already know, but members of Gen Y use blogs, instant-messaging, e-mails, and wikis to share information with those whom they may never meet — and also with people across the hall or down the corridor. Their spirit of openness is accompanied by a casual attitude toward privacy and secrecy; they have grown up seeing the thoughts, reactions, and even indiscretions of their friends and peers posted on a permanent, universally accessible global record.

I know I find myself longing for more and more creative, collaborative team environments. That could also be attributed to my competitive sports background but regardless I think it is an important recognized generational trait for plenty of Gen Y'ers. This is something that definitely does not come naturally in the corporate or military rank and file chain of command. Empowering subordinates and creating collaborative environments will likely become more important as we progress into the next decade.

I think the point on openess and secrecy is also a very interesting dynamic, especially within the military culture. All thoughout my time at Air Force Academy I heard the definition of integrity described as "doing the right thing when no one is looking." I think that Gen Y'ers more confortable packaging themselves as one identity as opposed to a work person, an at home person, etc. They want to be respected for their ideas and contributions, not just for the appearance they present and for their ability to walk the line and live the status quo. Part of that process starts with the liberating practice of sharing information and experiences, and not necisarily just with those you know personally. Not everyone gets it, even in Gerneration Y. I know I still get comments and questions from friends about my blog all the time wondering why I put the time and effort in. But those who do get it are willing to bypass privacy for they feel that they don't have anything to hide and much to gain!

It’s still unclear how military and business leaders can adapt their traditional command-and-control operating models to make millennials feel comfortable. The U.S. military, and many corporations, rely on effective chains of command — on leaders who give orders and people in the field who execute them. It will be neither easy nor entirely desirable to make a transition away from that.

To be sure, the reasons for making such a transition continue to increase. Modern military adversaries — and, in the business world, commercial competitors — increasingly use nontraditional structures. Al Qaeda, for example, is not a top-down hierarchy. It is a flexible, decentralized network. As numerous experts have pointed out (for example, University of Pennsylvania professor Marc Sageman in his 2004 book, Understanding Terror Networks, and former U.S. Treasury Department analyst Jonathan Schanzer in his 2004 book, Al-Qaeda’s Armies), this network relies on shared ideologies, common hatreds, and distributed technical know-how, rather than on centralized command, regimented training, and tightly organized supply lines. Will it take a Gen Y military to learn how to effectively counter such virulent franchises?

I will have to defer this topic to fellow blogger Cam Schaefer who writes on fourth generation warfare. He has written extensively on Afghanistan explored the many questions surrounding our strategy and new ways of acheiving our nation's interests. In short I would just say that we are fighting a war that is longer than any war prior with acknowledged minimal gains, and a unique and new strategy whether fueled by Gen Y or another generation is surely welcomed by me.

In the end I think the author does a great job summing up what the real challenge is surrounding the unique dynamic of Generation Y and the military, and that challenge is balance.

Besides restoring the right value proposition, the military leadership can ensure that those in positions of command at all levels are trained and stress-tested to maintain a delicate balance — the balance between empowering Gen Y troops and providing them with direction, discipline, and cohesion. Indeed, balanced leadership is the only way to empower a millennial-dominated military to think and act creatively, responsibly, and with the right sense of mission.

Confronted with the reality of Gen Y’s unique characteristics, what’s a military leader to do? More research into the attitudes, aptitudes, and habits of young military officers and noncommissioned officers should help to clarify key issues; we already know that the answers are unlikely to lie in stifling this generation’s natural talents and predilections. Most generations have a way of challenging their elders’ fundamental assumptions and ways of doing things. Gen Y is poised to do the same — and in potentially constructive and original ways. The job of today’s captains, majors, and colonels is to encourage and guide millennials and protect them from the senior officers who may not appreciate their unique qualities. Let’s hope the military, and the corporations that hire the people who leave the military, can learn to make the most of this new generation’s distinctive talents and instincts


Cameron Schaefer said...

WOW! Too many thoughts running through my mind right now and it's very late. However, I did get your e-mail and I'd like to go back and forth on this topic. So, expect me to piggy-back on this post next week on Schaefer's Blog.

Thanks for such a great post!

The White Rhino said...

Fine article, Matt. Thanks for using your own experiences and perspective to comment on the original article. You are a great example of the kind of young leader the military needs to figure out how to manage and develop in new and creative ways.

Matt Bader said...

Thank you for the kind words and thank you for the great article on a topic I can relate to.

Glad to hear that you are interested in a blog-building duel. I look forward to your take on this.