There’s a generation gap in our military today. It happens every 20 years or so, of course, as members of younger generations enter the military in greater numbers and older generations retire. Signs include dissonance between the norms and priorities of older, senior leaders and those of younger, junior servicemembers. Today, for example, senior leaders wonder why junior servicemembers are selfish and act entitled, while younger men and women ask why those in leadership positions have lost perspective and don’t understand problems facing younger generations.
Current events and comments support this growing disconnect, as Baby Boomers fill senior leadership positions and retire while Millennials (those born after approximately 1979-1980) flood the lower and middle ranks.
A November 2010 Boston Globe article addressed the generation gap exhibited in both the implementation of DADT and its much-later repeal (1 Nov 2010, “A Generation Gap on ‘Don’t Ask’ Policy,” AP). It’s a quick read, stating what many people currently serving know: to the majority of Generation X and Millennial servicemembers, the sexual preferences of those we serve with just aren’t that big of a deal. And most believed it wouldn’t affect morale or unit readiness negatively. Older servicemembers, however, had/have a harder time with the idea of homosexuals serving in the military. The survey results are posted here.
I saw the generation gap both on active duty and as a reservist. When flying with older pilots, both as a student and later as an instructor, I consistently heard, “Well, I’ve never flown with a woman before.” It happened so often that we would joke about it in the squadron, and I came up with a set of one-liner responses (“Huh, is that right, sir?” gets old). But I never heard it from those my age or younger. Not once. To younger Marines, it didn’t matter. Who cared? They’d worked with women before, and it just wasn’t important. Later, while pregnant for my oldest, I flew regularly, and peers and younger pilots thought that flying with a pregnant pilot was either interesting or a non-event, usually seeing it as a chance to get three people in a Cobra at once and make jokes on flight grading sheets like “both of you are now DACM qualified.” But I never heard it called wrong, disgusting, or unsuitable for military service until I wrote about flying while pregnant on this forum.
Which brings up my next point: the Naval Institute’s efforts to engage and attract junior members. Two weeks ago, USNI sent a letter to members stating that the #1 job this year is to “engage young professionals and groom them to pick up the baton for the next generation.” On the USNI website, under “Where We’re Headed,” Objective #3 states that USNI must “increase, broaden, and engage our membership.” It specifically cites a need to “bring more active duty personnel…into the fold” and that “we must pass down USNI’s historical treasures to the next generation. They must be present for that to happen.” They are spot on, and meeting this objective is key to keeping communication lines open between generations so that we can continue to learn and improve the force. Asking around at work and among Navy/Marine Corps friends, I found that while some were familiar with USNI and its work, the majority were not. Of those that were, they generally considered it either out of touch with current servicemembers or an organization catering to retired personnel.
My point? There is a growing generation gap in the military (and the larger American culture), and we need to address it. It happens about every 20 years and it can be transformative. Baby Boomers caused major changes to how America views its wars, wartime leaders, and politicians, and, with Vietnam burned upon the collective consciousness, they brought about broad policy changes to ensure (as much as possible) that we do not find ourselves committed to another war that we either can’t or won’t win. Two decades later, Generation X began entering the military after being raised by single parents and in dual-income households at a higher rate than previous generations. Having grown up with the Feminist Movement, Generation X women were among the first to serve on combat ships and aircraft, and young men and women of this generation joined a military that largely allowed them to serve together.
Millennials are establishing themselves as the most tolerant generation on record. They are about 50% larger than Generation X, nearly as numerous as Baby Boomers. As a result of the cultural swings of the 80s and 90s, Millennials have different priorities, norms, and work/life expectations than Baby Boomers or even Generation X. Generation X and Millennials grew up in an America where women could fly and serve on nearly any aircraft or ship; where homosexuality was not something to hide or punish; where women began to graduate from college at higher rates than men; where their parents both worked full-time; and where (I’m going to use the “D” word here) diversity among Americans reached new heights.
With a looming budget crisis and after over a decade of conflict, we as a military must not alienate quality members of younger generations. Career paths, retention policies, and combat restrictions that worked 20 years ago may not work well now to attract and keep the best and brightest of younger generations. What constitutes combat has changed, our enemies have changed, and the servicemen and -women who fight our wars have changed. A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about the changing demographics of the family, especially the military family. The generation gap has forever altered the idea of what a family is and how it works. Considering that family reasons are the top ones given by those leaving the Navy and Marine Corps, it’s something we must pay attention to.
Some last thoughts on the generation gap and our need to ensure the services attract the best women and men 10, 20, 30 years from now:
–We need to keep an open mind when hearing complaints from other generations. It takes courage to speak up, and those doing so often don’t unless they feel it is worth the risk.
–We need to look closely at the demographics and what they tell us. Women comprise more than half of all college graduates. In stark contrast with the white-male majority in the military, the majority of all births in America are now minorities. The family consisting of a male breadwinner with a supportive wife and kids at home is a small and shrinking minority among families, most of which are headed by dual-income couples. Millennials and Generation Xers believe family is more important than work. These trends are also continuing to grow; this isn’t a blip on the social radar.
–As college degrees become more common and earning one means less competitively, more people seek graduate degrees to stand out. The average military career path makes it hard to fit a college or graduate degree in, and while some manage to do it, we need to look at ways to allow continuing education—which should be a priority—for more servicemembers.
–We must continue to monitor the retention numbers and pay close attention to the reasons given by those leaving at the 6-10 year marks; family time and the inability to achieve a balance between a military career and the demands of a family top the list of reasons why people leave the service.
–None of us are unbiased. I am a product of my experiences, as is every one of us, and those experiences are valid and deserve respect. Dismissing ideas from junior servicemembers because they are different is going to hurt us more in the long run. A decade, two decades from now, this military will be led by those midgrade and junior officers and enlisted members, and we need to do the best we can to set them up for success in every form.
Either way, one day the younger generation will have the reins, and we owe it to ourselves and them to get more creative now.