November 3, 2008
Recruits are in for a surprise when they show up at the U.S. Army Training Center in Fort Jackson, S.C.
Drill sergeants don’t scream in their faces, though they occasionally raise their voices to something short of a yell. They run when recruits run, gut out the confidence obstacle course and carry backpacks lockstep with their charges on drill marches.
They are mentors, not bullies.
"They expect barking drill sergeants, ‘Full Metal Jacket’ type leadership," said Army Brig. Gen. James Schwitters, whose three-year command of the training center ended this summer. "This generation just doesn’t respond to that kind of authority."
A new generation of drill instructors is leading a new generation of future soldiers.
Demographers most commonly refer to this age group — born around 1978 or after — as Generation Y or "the millennials."
Experts on Gen Y say understanding this new generation is critical to any organization looking to tap into and develop its resources and talents.
For the U.S. military, this knowledge may be even more essential as it seeks to sustain an all-volunteer force while fighting drawn-out wars, researchers say.
With raw numbers approaching that of the Baby Boomers, this generation’s influence on America’s future is expected to be big, researchers predict.
"You couldn’t write this story of America over the last few decades without talking about the impact of the baby boomers," said P.W. Singer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, a Washington think tank. "You have another generational shift of the same magnitude that’s just starting to kick in right now."
Gen Y and the military
Because millennials were raised in a child-centric culture where they were taught to view themselves as "special," they are quick to protest what they perceive as unfair or unequal treatment and "disrespect," Singer said.
Gen Y servicemembers are less likely than older generations to tolerate the military’s "do what we tell you to do without question" approach, Singer said.
He said a battalion commander in Iraq told him conveying authenticity was crucial for any military leader.
"They want to understand why you’re giving that order and that you really stand behind it," Singer said.
Airman 1st Class Brittany Christensen, 22, of RAF Mildenhall, England, said her peers are more opinionated and less impressed with authority than previous generations.
Despite these differences, Christensen said she still looks to older folks for guidance.
"The older you are, the wiser you are," she said. "My grandparents are the smartest people in the world."
Schwitters already understands this about Gen Y.
"They don’t accept authority just because it’s authority. They will respect authority figures that earn their respect," the general said.
Schwitters helped engineer a "considerable shift" in leadership style at Fort Jackson.
"Rather than stand up in front and look mean and maybe holler a little bit and go through an act, they simply live the values and then demand reciprocal demonstration of those values by the soldier," he said of drill instructors.
But the generational issue was only a small reason for the change.
Considering the diverse threats soldiers face in combat today, the Army needs thinking soldiers "as opposed to just doing what they’re told without knowing why," he said.
It’s true, however, that old methods of fear and intimidation didn’t work as well with Gen Y recruits, Schwitters said.
"Previous generations would often suck it up and gut through it as opposed to this generation, which will react more negatively to what I would call enforced discipline: ‘Do it because I said,’ " he said. "We desire soldiers to be disciplined so they always do what’s right when no one’s looking."
So far, the new ways appear to be working.
The attrition rate at Fort Jackson over the past four years has dropped by about 50 percent, Schwitters said, though he doesn’t think the gains can be attributed solely to the new methods. Other changes, such as better screening of incoming recruits, may also be factors, he said.
A bunch of hype?
Not all military leaders buy into the Gen Y label.
"It’s the latest hype," says Naval Air Facility Misawa Command Master Chief Gale W. Bond, 44, who joined the Navy at age 17.
A second-generation submariner, Bond recalled his father telling stories about Navy chiefs of his era saying, " ‘This new generation, we don’t understand them. They’re spoiled.’ I hear my people today making the same comments about Gen Y."
Despite their technical savvy, he doesn’t believe Gen Y youth are any smarter than Baby Boomers, the latter of whom grew up without computers.
"I can tear down and rebuild an internal combustion engine. I don’t know many young folks that can do that," he said. "They can get on MySpace and develop a Web page and I can’t. It’s a matter of interests."
Bond isn’t a fan of lumping people into categories.
"In order to lead effectively, you need to know your people," he said, and that’s true of any generation.
But Petty Officer 2nd Class Dustin Schmidt, 27, an aviation machinist’s mate at NAF Misawa, sees generational gaps in the Navy when it comes to leadership.
When a sailor messes up, for example, some "old-school" leaders punish the whole department instead of the offender, while leaders closer to his generation "take the person aside, talk to them, figure out what’s going on and handle it at that level."
Tracy Russo, a University of Kansas associate professor of communications, said it is impossible to characterize 80 million Americans in one sweep because of their different backgrounds. Some were eldest children, some youngest.
Some were reared in urban settings, some in suburban, and some in rural places, with different faiths, educational and work experiences.
"All these individual differences matter," she said in an e-mail to Stars and Stripes.
She doesn’t believe that the military needs to "adapt itself wholeheartedly to Gen Y soldiers." But it’s valuable to be cognizant of generational differences, she said.
"It may help leaders use resources most appropriately to recognize that some of the behaviors of Gen Y soldiers reflect a different world view, rather than character flaws," she said.
Lt. Matthew Lyon, 24, the 13th Aircraft Maintenance Unit assistant officer in charge at Misawa, says asking questions of supervisors empowers younger officers:"‘Hey, is there a better way to do this?’ For the most part all it does is create more solutions."
A good leader, he added, will consider questions and suggestions and "take the best possible route. The difference in the military is once a decision is made, everyone is on board … we will make it happen at that point."
Tech. Sgt. Bill Hebb, an instructor at the Airman Leadership School at Misawa, agrees that to get the most of Gen Y members, commanders need to be fluid, allow for questions and "coach" rather than order.
But that style should stop short of the battlefield, he said, "because other people’s lives depend on it and in most cases, there’s probably not time to answer questions."
Stars and Stripes reporter Geoff Ziezulewicz contributed to this story.