In the August issue of Proceedings, Commander Darcie Cunningham, USCG complains about the personality traits brought to the naval service by millennials and gives advice on how to better assimilate them into the ranks [For other responses to the article see here and here]. I find the article incredibly condescending and patronizing with a hint of fear of impending irrelevance in a world that the Commander does not want to see change. Unfortunately, we do not have the luxury of remaining stagnant. The world is continuously changing. Our great nation is continuously changing. Our long tradition of citizen soldiers demands that we change with it.

I currently serve on a multi-generational crew with a hearty presence from generation X (those born between the early 1960s to 1980). They have stood a solid watch and I firmly respect how their service strengthened American seapower, but they are less dynamic than the current generation. They cling to inefficient means of communication and are more concerned with “work ethic” than the quality of product produced. This generation has me questioning how they can adapt in today’s rapidly changing world.

I don't understand these millennials with their self propelled ships. They just don't appreciate tradition.

I don’t understand these millennials with their self propelled ships. They just don’t appreciate tradition.

Here are some of their behaviors I have noticed:

• While the younger generation is more concerned with quality product, the older generation views a correlation with performance and hours worked. Given the same quality of results, they see laziness and a lack of dedication instead of efficiency.

• Along the same lines as correlating product with hours worked, they also would much rather see a more experienced individual be promoted over one vastly more skilled and qualified. They view accelerated advancement as an affront to their culture of advancement through keeping their head down and staying out of trouble. To them it is much better to be cautious and safe than tenacious and bold.

• They do not understand the need for the younger generation to know the basis behind requirements. The younger generations sees power through knowledge and asks why in hopes of finding a way to improve the status quo. The older generation is more apt to simply accept the way things have always been and can devolve to a frustrated “because I said so,” when asked for an explanation from subordinates.

Whether the older generation likes it or not, millennials are currently leaders within our organization. We are serving with discipline and dedication equal to those who have come before us, but we are doing it our own way. We will continue to preserve the liberties this country enjoys. So how does the structured military culture adapt to our new generation?

First, we must educate them on the benefits of promoting based on merit and not time in grade. The current antiquated system lets more competent individuals await their turn while they watch the less skilled continued to advance once it is their time to promote. If this merit-based promotion idea does not sit well with some members of the older generation, perhaps it is a subtle concern that they needed a time-based system to make it as far as they did. Job satisfaction should be the motivator for retention, not scare tactics of a poor economy and poor unemployment rate.

They need to be “course-corrected” that a desire to understand the basis for requirements and wanting to improve how we do things are NOT insubordination or disrespect. If this does not happen, our best will continue to be driven out and the military will remain a carbon copy of what it looks like now. Once we stop adapting we will most surely become irrelevant. The only way we can improve is if we ask if there is a better way and have an open and honest discussion about it. Progress has always been seen as a threat to the present. It takes courage to move forward as an organization.

I am very appreciative the older generation of senior leaders made sure the United States continues to rule the seas. They did an amazing job and they all deserve our thanks and respect. Their way of doing business worked, but previous performance does not guarantee future success. There are sure to be aspects of the current way of doing business and we should figure out what those are, but blindly maintaining the status quo is a sure way to fail.

Posted by LT Jason Chuma in Coast Guard, Innovation, Navy
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  • MIDN

    Subtle and excellent.

  • BTDT

    One of the things missing from this discussion about promotion is maturity. Maturity is something that can only be garnered through experience over time. Some who complain about lack of early promotion based on their self perceived efficiency may be displaying this lack of maturity.

  • NoBody

    What a load of unmitigated hogwash! What he describes isn’t anything new but a continuation of the dynamic between leaders and those being led. The problem is that millennials are a self absorbed bunch (I cringed at the “we are the leaders now” tag) that are being fed by the current administrations worship of youth.

    Experience IS valuable. Keeping your head down, staying out of trouble and doing your job IS admirable. But some of the traits that I see in this “new” generation of self promotion, self importance, and admiration of self mixed with a “look at me” attitude should be troubling to all military leaders that are paying attention.

    Unfortunately all we see are “we’ll give it to the Ipad generation and let them figure it out” type of leaders that cannot justify current actions that are questionable to many.

  • Greg Smith

    It takes experience to have good judgement. Lots of it. Sorry boys and girls but I’m talking years and years of it, not just cause you think you work “smarter”. You are training for war. That’s all and nothing else and when the time comes you go fight it. The mission of the military is just that: to win wars. Your career is secondary…hopefully dead last cause the mentality of the career type isn’t that flattering in my opinion. If you join the military thinking that your sole purpose is to serve the war winning goal, then you are on the right track. If you believe that the military should serve your needs (promotion, accolades, and anything else that YOU decide), you have signed the wrong contract.

    I’ve known plenty of “millennials who work hard and don’t expect special treatment but I’ve seen plenty who are total self promoters who do nothing but talk down about those who came before them. I remember being young and thinking I had all the answers and then having to suffer the rude awakening that I had a lot to learn. These people need to learn the leadership trait of humility, which is something all self promoters lack. We try to pass on the lessons we learn to those who come after us so they can succeed. Just cause this new generation “thinks” it has skills and capabilities that are better than those that came before them doesn’t make it so. Society today doesn’t hold its older members in the same esteem it used to. Not because anybody is less capable but because those values aren’t passed on like they used to. If this new generation wants to shine, then earn your keep, don’t sit here and say how poorly other people do in contrast to you. Rules don’t get rewritten to suit new generations, the new generation has to live up to the standards they are assigned.

    I am a former enlisted Marine who served in 3d Tank Bn back in the 80’s in case anyone wondered my military background.

  • OhioCoastie

    Lieutenant, it just so happens that sometimes a CDR or a CAPT has a lot of demands on his time and attention. If time permits, they might pause to briefly answer your “why do we ____” questions. But time rarely permits an in-depth answer. You are not the center of your unit’s universe.

    You’re a JO. Coincidentally, the first two words in the word “journeyman” are also JO. The masters of your chosen trade expect you to devote significant time and effort to informing yourself. Asking them “Why?” a lot is what an apprentice does. Use that youthful ingenuity and energy to do some research yourself. Dig up some manuals from the ship’s office, do some Google searches, talk to your fellow JOs, buttonhole a trusted Chief or two … figure it out, Lieutenant.

    If you think you have a smarter way of accomplishing something, then by all means try it. Doing things the old way isn’t always the best way. But demanding to be spoon-fed the reasoning behind everything you’re responsible for is not what’s expected from a commissioned officer.

    • Ghost of Raborn

      Actually, this Lieutenant is a submarine *Department Head*, with all the experience, screening, and additional training that implies, and not a JO. In fact he had quite likely become familiar with far more manuals and Google searches (spoken like a true millenial there) than even you.

      But even if he weren’t a DH, your response is quite condescending, taking issue with arguments LT Chuma never actually made because of your own misunderstanding of the argument.

      In fact, far from being a simple millenial mindset, the idea of meeting “Commander’s Intent” is time-honored in military service, and is even a current focus of the CJCS’s push for improved professional military education (in the guise of “mission command”, which is the topic of a few manuals and Google searches you may wish to brush up on…).

      Likewise I can’t speak for the USCG, but the Navy has long utilized “command by negation” as a guiding value of command and control, the entire foundation of which rests on properly understanding *what* your boss wants to achieve and *why* they want it so that you can best figure out *how* to meet mission objectives through your own effort and those of your subordinates.

      This is especially true when *&!@ happens in war, a situation in which we expect our commissioned officers to be able to adapt to a changing situation even without new orders from the boss…. but this can only be properly done when, yes, the boss has promulgated his intent and concept of operations.

  • CPT-Curmudgeon

    One hopes that Lt. Chuma is a better naviagator/ops officer than he is a writer; otherwise one of our crews-and its ship-is indeed in greater peril than our nation’s enemies. This junior officer’s response to Commander Cunningham’s article, in addition to its errors of grammar/style/usage, is factually inaccurate, logically fallacious, disrespectful, and sophomoric.

    • SharkieSharkie

      The only fallacy I see is your attacking him without offering any real argument to substantiate your position.

  • Splatkid10

    Got to love the hate by X!

    • OhioCoastie


  • LT Paris

    The initial responses here are not surprising and are equally maddening.

    Wake up folks – maybe even “sirs” – you are standing up for something that is past and opening. Not that sticking to your beliefs isn’t an admirable trait, but combining your out-of-date methods with your rank and position are suffocating the U.S. Military. See: any successful organization in the private/public sector.

    Many of you are quite fond of the “my way or the highway” method, and what that has unfortunately led to is your BEST officers deciding not to put up with it anymore. Is this a new phenomenon? Absolutely not! Think of that – you’re right, this IS NOT NEW! You’re ways have been pushing down or driving out the best of the best for ages.

    LT Chuma’s piece – like everything he puts together – is well thought-out and brilliant and needs to be taken on-board. It might surprise the initial posters that some of our service’s most senior leaders are doing just that. Thank goodness!

  • LT Paris

    Now for the real response! Folks – you must read the source material. It is obvious that you haven’t. LT Chuma has brilliantly laid out the fallacy in the very disappointing article published in Proceedings by our friend, the USCG shore-side Commander. Read that first, and then you may see these words in a new light.

  • vtbikerider

    My first thought when I read the CDR’s article was to chuckle: “Who are you going to recruit if not them– 8th graders?” but then I started to think especially after reading the LT’s response.
    The current generation are products of our society– and that’s what we have to look at to see what’s different– not wrong but different. I’ve been in education now for 20+ years and and a firm Gen Xer. With that being said, the sea-change in the kids I work with is clear, but they are products of their parents and society. Parents started to become more involved, more social with their kids and more accepting of them as little individuals rather than seeing them as, well, kids. “My son/daughter is my best friend…” started to be heard making me cringe. They were adults and a 9th grader was their best friend? Seriously? When a child is empowered to seem themselves as “special” all of the time, it’s not the fault of the child, it’s the fault of the parent and society that promotes and accepts that idea. That’s the base of the current generation– not their fault– it was imposed on them.
    The other change I’ve seen is a decline in social skills and unwillingness to put the organization first. My last few years of students are utterly incapable of functioning well without a device in their hand and “date” online– whatever that means. Carrying on a conversation or acknowledging another’s needs, responsibilities, etc, etc is hard for them. It takes time to educate and break that cycle of self-empowerment/involvement.
    I don’t have the answers– if I did then I’ be rich. But this can be “solved’ if both generations looked for the positive rather than the negative. Gen X brings experience and time at sea while the echo-boomers bring new ideas. Perhaps another Nelson is there.

  • A Random Voice

    LT Chum, I appreciate your candid and equally polarizing generational biases. They are as equally unproductive as CDR Cunningham’s. BZ!

  • Captain T. R. Beall, USN (Ret)

    I think we could all, regardless of generation, perhaps be a little less patronizing and condescending. As a high school teacher, I have learned that my students are different from me in many ways – particularly culturally and ethically. Still, I have to try to engage them in learning and they have to do the learning to grow and, ultimately, lead meaningful lives. My challenge is to figure out how to engage them; their’s is to figure out what it is I am trying to teach them. We both need to figure each other out to some degree and build a mutual relationship founded on trust and a willingness to work together. In that respect, teaching is not much different from naval leadership – regardless of the decade in which it has been practiced.

  • DDC

    Jason, you make excellent points, but be careful about drawing battle lines between you and the Gen Xers. Remember that it is the people who were born towards the end of the Gen X period that were raised under both paradigms: old communication and new. We are the bridge between you and the Baby Boomers who still control the real levers of power.

    I commend you for putting your voice out there, stepping into the arena. Sure, you’ll catch some flack, but it will make you better in the long run by both thickening your skin and being exposed to constructive criticisms of your own arguments. Maintain your passion, hone your technique, and keep thinking forward. I trust it will serve you well.

    And yes, we do have some terrible “leaders” whose only real skill is staying with the pack to CDR/CAPT or sometimes even flag ranks. You’re right to roll your eyes at them as the results of a flawed system. But consider this: stability and incremental change are also virtuous. Everyone was young once, and the needs of the younger generation today are in essence no different than the one that preceded it. The tools are different, perhaps the language, but not the perceived demands of youth.

    I’m sure we’ll be different in 20 years, just as I’m sure that when you’re an O6 you will have a different perspective on how to run the Navy. I hope you stick around to experience it. I, for one, welcome our new Millennial overlords.