The Five Generations in the Military


At any given moment, there are five generations that either serve in uniform or direct and influence military policy, strategy, operations, and tactics. These generations range from seventeen-year-old privates fresh out of high school, to seventy and eighty year-old elected and appointed officials. Leaders in the military should have a basic understanding of this aspect of our military. With that understanding, leaders should formulate ways to ensure communication, understanding, and empathy.

Baby Boomers: To illustrate the wide variety of generations, consider that the current (as of 2019) Commander In Chief is from the baby boomer generation, born in 1946, as is the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Dunford, who was born in 1955 the year of the infamous lighting strike on the clock tower in Hill Valley. Don’t expect the baby boomer generation to disappear anytime soon, and the political landscape in Congress and potential 2020 presidential candidates hail from this cohort.

Generation X began with those born in 1964. Most of today’s crops of general officers below the service chief level come from the early parts of this generation. Moreover, this generation includes most senior field grade officers, to include colonels and lieutenant colonels. On the enlisted side, generation X accounts for the current Sergeant Major of the Army, SMA Daily, born in the year of the first moon landing. Generation X is the group that grew up with rotary phones, Atari and 8-bit Nintendo only to transition to smart phones and Wii in adulthood. Further, this may have been the last generation to break up romantic relationships in college because long distance calls were just too expensive.  

Millennials: It may come as a surprise, but many field grade officers and senior non-commissioned officers come from the millennial generation. With birth years beginning in the early 80s, coming of age at the turn of the millennium, and often disparaged by older generations, the millennial generation of service members has been serving a nation at war for their entire adult lives. This is the generation that has been fighting at the tactical level in Iraq and Afghanistan year in and year out with seemingly no end in sight.

Generation Z has begun to infiltrate the ranks of the military and contains the crop of our youngest service members. Just as millennials have been at war for their entire adulthood, many of generation Z has been part of a nation at war for their entire lives. Young men and women serving from this generation are deploying to Afghanistan with no personal memory of the events of September 11th, 2001. Moreover, it is likely that a significant number of service members from this generation will deploy to the same locations their parents of a previous generation have gone.

The Greatest Generation: A part of the military often ignored is the large number of civil servants such as Department of Defense and service civilian employees. Much like the military, there are multiple generations serving their nation in this field, but unlike the military include outliers such as the late Andy Marshall, who hailed from the greatest generation. Mr. Marshall walked the halls of the Pentagon well into his 9th decade.

Each generation has grows up with different experiences and worldviews. This may range from internal values to an understanding and dependence on modern technology. Baby boomers may insist on the necessity of map reading, while millennials invent maps that read to them. Generation X and generation Z have widely different pop-culture references in their language, something to consider when dropping a line during a briefing. Quoting a line from Airplane or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off may get a chuckle from a battalion commander, but would miss the mark with a junior NCO or lieutenant.   

Different generations tend to have different takes on the use of technology. Elder generations tend to value verbal communications such as phone calls, while younger generations tend to rely on texting, and direct messaging on social media. Hopefully, fossils such as phone trees have disappeared in favor of group texting apps.

This generational gap vis a vis technology is not a new development. Patton and Eisenhower were criticized for advocating the tank in future warfare. Their elders such as General Herr insisted on the use of horse cavalry well into the lead-up of World War II.

When it comes to values, leaders should understand that what is acceptable and what is offensive changes and evolves over the course of time. For example, in the world of comedy, what was considered offensive years ago were cuss words and other foul language. This language is more acceptable today, however racial and homophobic language is strictly verboten.

-How can leaders bridge generational gaps?

-What can subordinates and leaders do to enable understanding of generational values?

-How can leaders develop an ability to relate to service members two or three generations younger?

-Should the military develop ways to have younger service members train older generations on uses of new technologies? New language? Popular Culture?

A rough guide to each generation; this perspective adds a layer between Generation X and Generation Y

A rough guide to each generation; this perspective adds a layer between Generation X and Generation Y