It would appear, therefore, that if the current leadership in the public and private sectors learns to accept, deploy, and manage Generation Y effectively, the millennials could even provide an echo of the grit and selfless heroism that inspired journalist Tom Brokaw to label their grandparents “the greatest generation.” On the other hand, if the leadership fails to understand and adapt — if it insists on harnessing millennials with outdated mind-sets, rules, and processes — it could squander a historic opportunity to reinvigorate the military and rekindle an idealistic, can-do spirit in a wide variety of institutions.
An Online Generation
As current military leaders look more closely at the nature of this new generation, they will discover that it conflicts with both their organizational structures and their communications strategies. Most of Gen Y lives on the Internet, which is why the U.S. Navy now places recruitment videos on YouTube and the Central Intelligence Agency has begun advertising on Facebook. In contrast to earlier TV-watching generations, however, millennials do not use the Internet merely to absorb information passively. They also insist on communicating — through text messages, handhelds, homemade videos, audio mixes, Weblogs, and personal pages.
Gen Y’s familiarity with the interconnected world suggests that its members will respond enthusiastically to management styles that encourage creativity and initiative, and that they will be comfortable working in teams. Millennials exhibit characteristics likely to render them facile and effective decision makers, especially in combat situations, where decentralized operations are paramount. They are also adept at gathering information and sharing it with peers. The U.S. military has long struggled to smooth interservice rivalries and achieve better working relations between military and intelligence operations. Corporations face similar challenges in getting people to work together fluidly and productively across functional, regional, and operational boundaries. Might Gen Y, with its deeply ingrained habits of openness and teamwork, eventually succeed in breaking down some of these barriers?
In other ways, those deeply ingrained habits challenge established organizational values. To command-and-control organizations like the military (and many corporations), knowledge is power and, therefore, something to be protected — or even hoarded. To Gen Y, however, knowledge is something altogether different; it belongs to everyone and creates a basis for building new relationships and fostering dialogue. Baby boomers and Gen Xers have learned to use the Internet to share information with people whom they already know, but members of Gen Y use blogs, instant-messaging, e-mails, and wikis to share information with those whom they may never meet — and also with people across the hall or down the corridor. Their spirit of openness is accompanied by a casual attitude toward privacy and secrecy; they have grown up seeing the thoughts, reactions, and even indiscretions of their friends and peers posted on a permanent, universally accessible global record.
When they serve in the military, however, millennials are speaking not just for themselves, but also for those who report to them. If they are officers or senior enlisted men or women, this may mean hundreds of people. They are also responsible for high-stakes operations that may have covert components. Training and procedures must address these gaps, without losing the value that comes with openness and initiative.
And there is a still more challenging issue: A Concours Group report on generational change proposed (in August 2004) that Gen Y’s comfort with online communications may mask the group’s inexperience in negotiating disagreements through direct conversation and a deficit in face-to-face social skills. Beyond the implications for this generation’s future management style, how might such a skill deficit affect the military’s ability to “win hearts and minds” in future conflicts? In recent years, the military has done extensive training to offset educational deficiencies. Indeed, the promise of such training has been among its greatest attractions for recruits. Should the military now begin to focus on developing new recruits’ interpersonal skills, neglected through years of staring into cyberspace?