The report presciently foresaw the U.S. military’s current difficulties 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.
To put these challenges in proper context, any assessment of millennials’ potential — in the military and as citizens — must look beyond any current military and political situations. Whatever happens in the Middle East during the next few years, for example, we can be certain that the recruiting and training of American military personnel will not remain static. Gen Y’s presence may lead the military to adopt broader, more far-reaching policy and management reforms that empower this cohort and take advantage of its special strengths.
Just how does this generation differ from its parents, the baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964), and its immediate predecessor, Generation X (those born between 1965 and 1978)? With more than 75 million members, Generation Y is nearly as large as the baby boom and at least 50 percent larger than Generation X. (Estimates vary because demographers, who generally agree that prevailing generational characteristics shift roughly every 20 years, disagree about exactly which years represent the specific cusps between them.) These population figures alone should be heartening to military and business recruiters, because Gen Y’s larger size translates into more potential recruits. Beyond mere numbers, of course, any attempt to characterize an entire generation must rely on gross generalizations, especially in the absence of hard data. Therefore, Booz Allen Hamilton is initiating a new research effort aimed at defining and tracking Gen Y’s attitudes and aptitudes as they relate to the U.S. military.
Preliminary though the research may be, it already points to clear differences separating all three generations now present in the military and in the civilian workforce. The generation of baby boomers began life in the sunny, optimistic aftermath of World War II and were reared with unprecedented sensitivity according to the precepts of Dr. Spock. In adolescence, many members of this generation turned cynical and anti-authoritarian; they started careers and families later in life than their parents had.
Generation X grew up in a time of dual-career couples and soaring corporate layoffs. Its members married even later than their baby-boom predecessors — the median age at marriage has risen to 26 for women and 28 for men (from 20 for women and 23 for men in 1960) — and they have tended to steer away from large employers in favor of entrepreneurialism.
By contrast, Gen Y has grown up in an era when childbearing and child-rearing seem once again to be social priorities, with “Baby on Board” signs displayed in the rear windows of their parents’ minivans, as Lieutenant Colonel Wayne A. Sinclair observed in Marine Corps Gazette (September 2006). Two of the most prominent theorists of generational change, historian and satirist Bill Strauss and historian 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.