Illustration by Lars Leetaru
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. Other conspicuous traits include its widespread, matter-of-fact adoption of hip-hop culture (baggy clothing, piercings, and tattoos have already prompted stricter regulations regarding military appearance) and a casual indifference to distinctions of race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation (a phrase that itself first came into widespread usage around the time this generation was born). Indeed, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the U.S. military’s policy on homosexuality, feels absurd to many members of this cohort, who would otherwise see no shame in asking or telling. Survey research (for example, a January 2007 Pew Research Center study) shows millennials to be the most tolerant generation on record.
Are such traits lifelong fixtures of the majority of Gen Y individuals, or simply markers of youthful naivete among a visible minority? At present, no one really knows. But the question is important because the future of the military — and other institutions as well — will rest in their hands. The oldest members of this intriguing demographic, born in 1979 and 1980, are already of an age to be lieutenants in the Navy and captains in the U.S. Air Force, Army, and Marine Corps, and those born just after the end of Desert Storm in 1992 are currently in high school. Within the next 10 to 20 years, the members of this generation will become majors, colonels, and Navy captains, with similar progress through the enlisted ranks. And soon thereafter, they will be flag and general officers and occupy similarly prominent leadership roles in other organizations — not just in the U.S. but all around the world.
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.”