By George Goblet
The differences in age and generations have played a part in the development of our nation and careers over at least the last 65 years, from the Baby Boomers to Generation X to the Millennials that are just now entering the workforce. The fire service follows the same cyclic transition from one generation to the next just as other subcultures and professions in society. As the generations change, the fire service needs to be prepared to adapt and be able to fully train and mentor the future generations. Younger generations have different outlooks regarding self-awareness and respect for authority. One of the best ways to reconcile these differences is mentoring. The few Baby Boomers that are still around are in the waning evening if not the twilight of their careers, and the rookies they trained, Gen Xers, are now entering the administrative and leadership roles with in their departments. As a result of this transition and keeping in mind that it must transpire repeatedly, departments must shift to formal succession planning. There have always been differences between generations that pose stresses on the communication between them. It is typical and expected that one generation does not understand the nuances of the one that comes after it, and each new generation struggles to find value in the life experiences of the one that came before.
The previous two generations, Traditionalists and Baby Boomers, were excellent, strong, military-minded mentors to the Gen Xers, however this mentoring model is unlikely to work well for the Gen Xers that are now mentoring the Millennials. The cycle of administration that is reaching retirement now was introduced into the fire service when World War II veterans were in the top leadership and administrative roles and some of the older of the Vietnam veterans were already in the company-level officer roles. The groups of firefighters that the WWII veterans mentored are now nearing retirement. Current and prospective leaders would be remiss not to consider what was required to be fully certified, functional, competent, and put to work when they came into the fire service. Things were dramatically different compared to what is required of new recruits today--to be customer-service oriented as well as certified in myriad areas. These Millennials are expected to meet more stringent requirements for certifications, and to do so without having the type of military-minded mentors that Gen Xers had to guide them through the process.
The Millennials have a very different set of values from the Baby Boomers that the Gen Xers are familiar with. It is easy for the Gen Xer to look at a newly recruited Millennial and wonder how they will ever make them understand why the traditions and expectations of the fire service are important. For example, in a fire academy I heard about from a friend, the instructor was trying to impress upon the students why salvage and overhaul can make such a huge difference to someone that has had a fire. The instructor asked one of the students: "What is your most sentimentally valuable possession?" The student replied, "The most valuable thing I have is about 200 Japanimation DVDs in a notebook." Clearly it was a stretch for this Millennial to understand the value of the photo albums the instructor had used as an example of what type of items should receive consideration in salvage operations. The Millennial would most likely have all of their pictures stored on some social media site, or in the "cloud."
Gen Xers tended to be called latch-key kids, because they grew up with the first large wave of divorce and an era of single mothers. As a result, they grew to be independent and resilient, which has carried over into their work mentality. Millennials were born in an age where the parents were nurturing and put them in the center of the family universe. Many of them experienced a childhood in which everyone played a team sport and everyone on the team receives a trophy and they're all made to feel like the most valuable player. The resulting self-confidence (which sometimes appears to be arrogance) is traceable back to all the attention given by their parents and their environment, which made them feel like a VIP. Most Generations Xers are very pragmatic and independent when it comes to their role in the workplace and enjoy receiving consistent feedback to know how to improve. Millennials, however, will likely work best in teams and may need to have help completing tasks individually. Gen Xers were indoctrinated into the fire service in a ranking structure modeled after the military. Conversely, Millennials only exposure to authority has been mostly friendly authority like teachers and coaches in schools where "no child is left behind," with a potential exception being encounters with law enforcement. Gen Xers tend to be extremely loyal to those they work with and not necessarily to an organization or department specifically. If they are dissatisfied with the authority at one department then they are likely to send out their resume and look for a department that suits them better. Millennials tend to expect instant feedback and often crave a personal relationship with their officers. Millennials need to be mentored so they come to understand and value the importance of the fire service's ranking structure.
How can we as a profession bring these Millennials, with their very different values, to understand the importance and value of the traditions and values of the fire service? How do we as the Gen Xers that one day will surely turn our beloved fire service over to these Millennials ensure that they are fully indoctrinated into the culture and that they understands concepts like Brotherhood? We have to stop focusing on the differences and mentor them. The answer to bridging the generational differences always has been and will always be mentoring. To fully mentor the Millennials, Gen Xers need to be hands-on, patient, and remember that people will always differ on how you regard them. Mentor this next set of firefighters and future leaders of the fire service so that they have the work ethic, professionalism, and pride in their duty that the fire service deserves. Lest we Gen Xers forget, our leaders had their concerns about us, too, when we were rookies.
Leaders of Millennials need to establish a clear set of rules and expectations for these younger firefighters and strictly adhere to them. It would likely be beneficial to have the new rookies read a list of general expectations, for example, that details everything they are expected to complete throughout their time at the fire station. Millennials need a clear understanding of what is expected of them, and if you take the extra time to let them understand your path to action--the why behind the do--then you will have their buy-in and understanding. Now you only have to tell them once. The most recent recruits to the fire service seem to have a greater expectation for a return on the investment of their time. This mindset seems to come from their sense of self-awareness and their value in education as compared to the Gen Xers value of hard work. Let the Millennials understand the why and demonstrate their professionalism.
The U.S. military offers some good examples of skillful, thoughtful, and deliberate integration of the next generation into the current operations. The military has taken advantage of the effect hobbies and interests have on the minds and bodies of their newest members. The military has adapted some of their traditional equipment with consideration of the newest generation's affinity for computers and video games and their resulting hand-eye coordination. There are new unmanned armored vehicles that use video game-style interface and controllers. Military developers took into consideration what was already familiar to the potential pilots/controllers of this new military technology, then designed the interface to maximize that preexisting skill. This innovation of both design and concept, by using preexistent skills, reduced the training time and thereby increased speed of implementation of the new technology and mission success rate was notably increased. By this example, we can see there is a positive way to begin integrating the Millennials, while at the same time taking into account their higher sense of personal worth, letting them know there is value in their attributes, and most of all instilling in them a sense of belonging. So, what is the equivalent of the video game controller firefighting? How do we, as a profession, develop the same sense of interest and time dedication that exists in video game enthusiasts into our new members or recruits? Really, this example is not necessarily about the hardware and application of technology, but rather the openness to embrace the talent, skills, and differences of each new generation coming in. It's more about developing a sense of value for the new generation; then, once you have that buy-in, indoctrinate them into the culture and perpetuate the values and traditions of the fire service.
Gen Xers have an opportunity to shape the future of the fire service while teaching the Millennials how to be better prepared for their opportunity to lead when the next generation comes knocking on the door. This generational transition is a recurring cyclic trend across all fields of employment. We can take this change as an opportunity to employ mentoring as a tool to promote a positive and productive workplace in the future. What we instill in the newest members today will become what they will later value and instill in the next generations of firefighters, hence this is one of your greatest opportunities to make a difference and improve the future of the fire service.
There is only one constant in personnel development that can be seen in each generational change: mentoring. The newest recruits to any line of work will always bring with them alternative outlooks, dispositions, and attitudes. Therefore, as would be expected, Gen Xers and Millennials have different attitudes when it comes to training, self-awareness, and respect for authority. The key to integrating these two different perspectives is mentoring. Each person has the opportunity instill the idea of what the fire service should be simply by embodying the characteristics and attitude that represent what the fire service should be. If you look at the previous generational transitions, mentoring was, is, and will be the one constant that exists in each transition. No one will ever be able to integrate into a completely new environment without known expectations of performance and demonstration of skills. It is the responsibility of every firefighter to embrace the new membership in the fire service and make sure they do what they can to prepare them to do the job by mentoring them. It may occasionally be difficult to relate and communicate with new members when the values and attitudes they have are so different. Modeling the best attributes of the fire service and mentoring the newer membership or person aspiring to fill your job will be and always has been the one consistent path to success for the individual and the organization. Ultimately, success in the fire service and of the fire service is absolutely contingent on sincere care, concern, and compassion for all people, even rookies. You work for your family, but you come to work each day hoping you get an opportunity to exercise the skills you've learned and help a stranger. This mentality must be instilled in each subsequent generation to come.
Remember, strive every day to tolerate no mediocrity from yourself or those standing beside you, and leave it better than you found it.
George Goblet is a Captain with the Parkwood Fire Department in Durham, North Carolina. He sits on the E-Board of the Capital Area F.O.O.L.S. He has spent 20 years in the fire service, starting as a junior firefighter with the Wake Forest Fire Department in 1992.