Across the services, leaders certainly are scrambling to adapt to the millennial mindset, even as the generation is taking over.
By Kevin Lilley
Army Times, July 31, 2016 —
Are younger service members — so-called ‘millennials,’ born in 1980 or later — soft?
Are they too reliant on technology? Are they buried so deep in social media that face-to-face communication becomes impossible? Are they too busy questioning orders to follow them?
It’s not uncommon to hear such complaints from members of the Old Guard, some of whom are quick to stereotype the new breed as too desperate for praise and too ill-disciplined.
Across the services, leaders certainly are scrambling to adapt to the millennial mindset, even as the generation is taking over.
• The Army is looking to expand the role of drill sergeants and insert them back into Advanced Individual Training. This means new soldiers will have more time with tough-talking soldiers, beyond basic. Why?
“The problem that we do have is that right now the generation we have coming in is not as disciplined as we would like them to be,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Michael Gragg, the senior enlisted soldier for the Center for Initial Military Training, earlier this year. “So we have to provide them with discipline over a longer period of time.”
• At the service academies, students have complained the military’s rigid career tracks and “up or out rules” discourage continued service. Complaints like these from cadets at West Point helped hasten the Defense Department’s current plans to reform the promotion system and allow more flexibility in recruiting, assigning and promoting officers.
• While recruiting in the short-term has not suffered, leaders have warned of a looming crisis.
In the 1990s, almost half of young Americans had parents with some military experience. Today that has dropped to about 15 percent, Stephanie Miller, the Pentagon’s director of accessions policy, said in an interview earlier this year.
“This military-civilian disconnect does create this particular challenge for us,” Miller said.
Social media is also creating new complexities for recruiters. Years ago, a successful strategy entailed some television ads and sending individual recruiters out to high schools for face-to-face conversations.
Now, that’s changed as prospective recruits spend endless hours connected to smartphones.
“It is difficult to be able to get their attention in a world where social media and so many other different types of activities are pulling at their attention,” Miller said.
The takeover is here
As of 2014, the last year for which a full Defense Department-produced demographics report is available, about 4 in 5 active-duty service members were 35 years old or younger. Only 14.4 percent of the enlisted force was age 36 and up, and more than half the active-duty officer corps fell in the millennial bracket.
So if you’re a card-carrying Generation X-er, you’re outnumbered. Millennials will be moving into and up the ranks for the foreseeable future (although the next generation is coming; see sidebar), and love them or find them frustrating, we’ve asked some experts for ways to reach them.
Before the leadership advice, a few quick caveats. First, the debate over what makes a millennial is far from settled, though the majority of experts mark the generation’s birth dates between 1980 and 2000.
Second, all of the experts, at least to some degree, stressed that all of the tendencies, traits, habits, preferences and so on attached to millennials don’t apply to every single one. The blanket statements are especially ill-conceived for a self-selected group such as service members — because it’s not a random sample, some traits that may be in the minority of the overall millennial population (high fitness levels or high work ethic, according to some studies) would likely be in the majority among those in uniform.
For instance, “this [trend toward a low work ethic] is an average trend,” said Jean Twenge, a psychology professor who authored “Generation Me” in 2006 and updated it in 2014, primarily to discuss how those born from about 1980 to 1994 are adapting to the workplace. “There’s going to be exceptions. So, No. 1, find those who don’t fit that trend.”
That’s not always an option for military leaders. Some tips for how to manage millennials of all stripes — suggestions that can apply to all services:
1. Throw out your “shoes.” Having empathy for, and a desire to relate to, your subordinates isn’t a bad thing, but some leaders have the wrong starting point.
“If you assume that millennials think just like you … they’ll walk,” said retired Army Lt. Col. Leonard Wong, a research professor in the Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College. “[The idea of,] ‘Think about it when you were in their shoes,’ that’s a mistake. When we were their age, we thought differently.”
An example: Gen X and baby boomer troops may have been motivated to remain in service for access to health care and, down the line, a retirement income. That might not work for millennials, many of whom have been raised to accept, or at least not fear, late-life career changes.
Wong said such calculations should weigh on Pentagon leaders as they consider plans for overhauling the military retirement system — millennials may be more willing than previous generations to accept a small pension and get out before the 20-year mark. It’s not a new problem for long-serving leadership.
“Boomers thought, ‘If I leave the Army, I might not get a job,’” Wong said. “[Gen] Xers thought, ‘If I leave the Army, I’ll get a job, no problem.’ Boomers didn’t understand that.”
2. Learn to love the Why. Some leaders may take offense when subordinates seek clarity on orders. They are missing an opportunity, said Air Force Col. Timothy Sundvall, commander of the 35th Fighter Wing out of Japan’s Misawa Air Base.
“I find with the younger generation that they are used to asking why,” said Sundvall, who co-wrote a 2015 piece for Air & Space Power Journal on leading millennials along with Col S. Clinton Hinote. “They want to know why. If you can’t explain to them why you’re doing it, then for crying out loud, don’t do it. If you don’t know why you’re doing it, stop.”
Answering such questions not only suggests willingness to engage with younger troops, but it provides them with needed flexibility should the original order be overcome by events.
Without that extra step, Sundvall said, “when the situation changes, they aren’t going to be able to adjust to it, because they don’t know why they’re doing it in the first place.”
“Concentrate more on the why, more on the vision, and then let them go. When the situation changes, they’re going to be able to adapt to it.”
Another reason to engage, per Navy Lt. Matthew Hipple, is that if millennials don’t get an answer from their chain of command, they’re likely to seek one somewhere else.
“Why has always been important, it’s just now more people have that ability to ask that question more loudly,” said Hipple, 30, who in addition to his surface warfare duties is the president and co-founder of the Center for International Maritime Security think tank. “They have access to more information that lets them question that why, or come up with their own reasons for that why. And also they’re curious, because they know that information is available.
“It has nothing to do with them being millennials, it has to do with the resources at their disposal.”
3. Go hands-off. Another benefit to a good answer to “why” is the ability to unleash skills of younger service members that could go underutilized if orders are too specific or aren’t explained.
Capt. Jon Rodgers, commanding officer of the amphibious assault ship Makin Island, recalled how he asked his younger crew members to improve on the “ergonomically handicapped” bridge setup, which limited the CO’s ability to operate in a suddenly hostile environment.
“We’ve got to make this more functional, to be able to fight the ship from the bridge, if we have to,” Rodgers recalled telling his sailors and junior officers. “If I had to run from the bridge to combat to fight the ship, that’s about five minutes we don’t have.
“I didn’t prescribe how I wanted it done, just here’s the ‘why.’ These young millennials, they opened up. They felt privileged, unleashed. They were not shy about coming forward with their ideas. They did the work, and it was a lot of pride.”
Rodgers performed a similar exercise while in command of the afloat forward staging base Ponce, where he commanded a combined civilian-military crew and became a de facto expert on multigenerational leadership: His sailors ranged from age 17 to 75.
4. Why are they ‘soft’? Find a mirror. Before criticizing millennials for a lack of drive or strength, Wong suggests leaders should show more backbone themselves — allow the young troops to take some responsibility and be willing to accept the difficulties that could result.
Wong’s May essay, “Letting the Millennials Drive,” makes the point with a private-sector analogy: Fewer teenagers are driving before their 18th birthday, and the professor surmises it’s because risk-adverse, busy parents would rather chauffeur their children than put up with the headache of driver instruction.
“We’ve taken out a lot of their independence because we’re simply too lazy to teach them how to drive,” Wong said. “We’re too lazy to teach them how to ride a bicycle. It’s easier just to do it for them.”
Such thinking worms its way into the Army as senior officers look to junior leaders whom they see as not yet ready for prime time, then decide not to give them the appropriate level of responsibility.
“It’s really, really hard to say, ‘I will underwrite your mistakes as long as you show initiative’ when you know that your [performance review] relies on them,” Wong said. “Let’s be honest with ourselves.”
The end result: When senior leaders do turn over the keys, junior leaders don’t have the required time behind the wheel.
5. Mindful mentoring. Multiple studies show millennials crave mentorship, and while it’s not a new concept for military leaders, that doesn’t mean it’s always been done right.
“Not everybody can or should be a mentor,” said Marine Lt. Col. Todd Mahar, head of 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines, a former recruiter who wrote about the Marine Corps’ approach to millennials while at Command and Staff College in 2013. “We really don’t identify that at all. They may just be a good tactician, a good operator, but we may not want them to eventually be the mentor for junior Marines.”
Rodgers said he’s found younger officers to be more open to honest feedback, “whereas we [older salts] had a lot of pride, a lot of ‘I am who I am’ kind of thing.”
“Because this generation is more connected, their mind is more open, so I can be brutally honest to them. … It’s not so much a shrugged-shoulder conversation, it’s wide-eyed. They’re being attentive. You’re communicating, being honest with them.”
While millennials may crave feedback, they might not be used to the type of honesty Rodgers recommends. Leaders should deliver their appraisals “in a compassionate and constructive way, and it should include praise for what has been done correctly,” said Twenge, the “Generation Me” author.
One possible reason could be this generation’s coming of age during a substantial high school grade inflation. Twice as many recent students graduated with an A average than those who left school in the 1970s – marks that didn’t come, Twenge said, with commensurate increases in standardized test scores.
Besides, she said, some things go beyond generational divides: “Nobody likes negative feedback. It’s human nature.”
6. Show the bigger picture. Think millennials trend toward narcissism? Twenge’s data pointed her in that direction, and a 2013 New York Times piece featured a throwdown between her and critics of her approach and survey methods.
Regardless, a leader likely will cross paths with a self-important subordinate, and Twenge suggests using that character trait for the greater good.
“Make sure they understand their larger purpose, their role in the group,” she said. “This generation doesn’t want to be just a cog in the wheel. They do still respond to the things that the military does so well: Feeling like you have a larger purpose. Those things are universal, but they also want to know that they’re individually making an impact.”
Rodgers found success with this approach while tasking his younger Makin Island crew members with preparing best practices for the ship’s hybrid propulsion system — a job they knew would set the course for many years’ worth of future sailors.
“They blossom in that environment, where they can be a part of the solution,” he said.
7. Embrace technology … Sundvall offered the type of leadership analogy one might expect from a pilot: As an older aviator, he said, he struggles with “sensory overload” from the technological advances in fighter-jet displays, sometimes catching himself wishing “I was just back when I had all green – nothing in my helmet, green displays, and I didn’t know where everybody else was.”
But, he said, he realizes younger pilots don’t see the cockpit that way.
“That’s what they grew up with, he said. “It is part of them. Literally, it is them. You see that with kids now, to where the smartphone has actually, in a way, become part of us. People get separation anxiety when they can’t find their phones. That kind of thing works in jets, too.”
Rather than yearn for simpler times, leaders should make relevant information available via the media channels service members access through their smartphones, the experts said.
“There are those lazy leaders who just give a big Heisman to social media and just write it off,” Rodgers said. “I embrace it. That’s a huge opportunity.”
8. … but choose it wisely. Leaders looking for a one-stop technology shop to communicate with their subordinates, or who wander onto social media platforms without doing their homework, may make things worse. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other platforms can all get the word out, but will anybody notice?
Some leaders have embraced the viral-image nature of Twitter to apparent success — Hipple jokingly referred to a “dank meme gap” between Navy and Army civilian leadership, where Army Secretary Eric Fanning and Undersecretary Patrick Murphy have taken the lead in posting Nicki Minaj images, for instance.
— Eric Fanning (@SecArmy22) June 13, 2016
Rodgers found that platform didn’t work well for his purposes, instead expanding Makin Island’s Facebook content and its conventional website, including more video posts focusing on how individual sailors contribute to the amphib’s success.
Mahar said in his 2013 paper that the Marine Corps was “resistant to embracing social media as a leadership mass communication tool to communicate with both the public and the force, but effective use of social media can ensure that strategic messages reach the intended audiences and decrease misunderstanding or misinterpretation.” He’s been pleased with its development since, especially its use by top Marine Gen. Robert Neller.
“It’s not for everything, but there’s important things for our Corps that we need to hear from our commandant,” he said.
9. Remember Mom and Dad. “Millennials are very connected to their parents,” said Wong, who joined the SSI in 2000 after a 20-year military career. “If I could re-do it, when a new soldier came to my unit, I’d send a letter to his parents saying how proud I am, that he looks like he’s going to be a great fit, that kind of stuff. It would boost morale incredibly.
“A Gen-Xer, his parents might not even know he was in the Army.”
Going through the parents isn’t a new technique for military recruiters, but it may be a new one for unit leaders. Mahar suggested taking advantage of social media and email newsletters to reach out to families, establishing lines of communication in advance of problems.
Otherwise, he said, “parents and families are going to find a way to communicate with somebody: Congressmen, an inspector general — it might as well be me first, if at all possible.”
Just because the family bond remains strong in some instances doesn’t mean troops will respond to being treated like teenagers. Sundvall, the Air Force officer, said some of the greatest success he had at Misawa came from allowing some of the younger enlisted airmen to live off-base, under similar conditions as their stateside counterparts.
“You know they don’t have the experience that you have as a senior leader, but treat them like they do, and then guide them where they don’t,” Sundvall said. “I think your default position going in needs to be that they are adults.”
10. Don’t believe everything you read, or hear. Twenge cautioned against relying entirely on anecdotal evidence when forming opinions or strategies regarding millennial behavior. A single platoon or detachment doesn’t make for a valid sample size.
That doesn’t mean all attitudes toward millennials don’t have some basis in data. In a recent post at Psychology Today, Twenge points out that surveys of high school seniors done over decades by the Monitoring the Future project support claims of a generational work-ethic gap: 38 percent of millennials “don’t want to work hard,” compared with 30 percent of Gen-Xers and 26 percent of baby boomers. And of the three generations, millennials were the only ones in which less than half of those surveyed were willing to work overtime.
Data also suggests millennials may be more likely to volunteer, but Twenge chalked that up to community service requirements for some high schools. Other indicators of altruism — charitable donations, for instance — stayed the same or trended down.
Hipple, who has identified himself as “a naval officer by choice and millennial by cruel twist of fate” online, has a simple theory for why generational stereotypes, especially negative ones, gain traction so quickly: “Stuff that sucks, people like to talk about.”
“They like to complain,” he elaborated. “To a certain point, I’m not surprised that certain stereotypes come up, because naturally they are the examples you’re going to talk about. You always talk about the car in the accident, you don’t talk about the week of traffic that passed the bend in the road.”
11. ‘Back in my day’ isn’t original. “You’re always going to have the dynamic where things were always tougher for you than for somebody else,” Mahar said. “I think there’s evidence of that throughout time.
“I still see it even within the same generation. … The lance corporals telling the pfcs. and the privates, ‘Oh, when I was in, last year. …’ ”
That goes for technology, too — while smartphones and ever-present internet access may have changed leadership methods, it’s part of a continuous developmental cycle that’s not likely to stop. Leadership is “technology-agnostic,” Hipple said, and good leaders will put the new tools to use rather than explain how things used to be done.
Eventually, it’ll be the millennials’ turn to reminisce.
“One day, my son … he’s going to have his BrainPod, and I’m going to think that’s completely a waste of time and that he should get back to tweeting,” he said.
Staff writers Michelle Tan and Andrew Tilghman contributed to this report.