Bridging the Gaps Among the Generations


The tension caused by the differences among the generations of firefighters in today’s workplace has been the subject of much discussion. The combination of several generations working together and the influx of women, minorities, and people with varying sexual orientations have made things interesting for today’s supervisors and challenging for the historically conservative fire department culture. The populations born between 1940 and 2000 have more names than a typical phone book: traditionalists, baby boomers, Generation Xers, Millennials, X-Boxers—however you want to label them. In many cases, these people do not always get along.

We once heard a very experienced fire captain say about the new breed of firefighters: “I don’t understand them. How can they think that way? They have no work ethic. I just don’t like them.”

Today’s fire service workforce consists primarily of four generations. Each generation has its own values, beliefs, and priorities. That is the reason the relationships among members of one generation and those of the other generations often are hindered by misconceptions and impatience.

For the most part, many older supervisors don’t buy into the values and work ethic of today’s employees; some, in fact, say these employees lack commitment and a work ethic. The newer generations, on the other hand, don’t understand the need for the semimilitary structure of the fire service. Many of the new team members have more formal education than their supervisors, which some newer members believe gives them the right to be disrespectful to their superiors. Another challenge for today’s supervisor is dealing with nonthreatening behaviors such as tattoos, earrings, body piercings, hairstyles, and facial hair.

On the other side of the coin, many new workers believe the bosses are stuck in the Great Depression mentality learned from their parents. They refer to the boss as “stubborn,” “inflexible,” “an obstacle to change,” and a proponent of the “It’s my way or the highway” style of leading.

Each succeeding generation perceives differently what the appropriate work ethic and degree of loyalty should be and what seems to work best for the department. People are influenced by their environment—the political system, the socioeconomic climate, parental influence, home life, and peers.

Our parents, for example, were impacted by the depression of the 1930s. We often didn’t know if dinner was going to be a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or a frozen TV dinner. During the day, we watched a “test pattern” on a black and white TV screen because the stations did not broadcast 24 hours a day. Today, you can watch TV while checking out at the local supermarket. Local and world television news programs lasted 15 minutes in my day. Today, news channels broadcast 24 hours a day.


You might identify with more than one generation if your birth year falls near the beginning or end of the parameters of a given generation. If you fall into that category, you are considered a “cusper,” someone who spans two generations. Cuspers can be a valuable resource in a work group because they can identify with two generations. They can foster understanding between the two groups and often are skilled at mediating, translating, and mentoring between two different value systems. Following are some characteristics of the various generations.

Traditionalists—Born 1935-1945

Traditionalists are patriotic. They are loyal to their country and their employer. They have worked longer than any other generation and are now either approaching retirement or have retired but may still be working in their retirement.

Although, as children, they lived through World War II, the world was rosy for the traditionalist. Most of their parents served in World War II or on the home front and dealt with the fears, losses, and acute shortages created by that world conflict. These parents were very strict and maintained control of their children. Dad was the breadwinner and “wore the pants in the family”; most mothers were stay-at-home moms. You didn’t try to tell these parents that their children should never be spanked or that their kids had a right to privacy.

A good friend, Dave Hubert, who along with his California State Firefighters’ Association Steamer Team are recognized throughout California and the western States, explains his position this way:

I am a traditionalist, and I am proud of it. My generation built the standard and character of the fire service. Most real men (and women) want to be part of it because it offers community, family, discipline, team, action, excitement, and a performance standard that can be found nowhere else. We face the realities of the fireground, life-and-death issues that are real. We, as practical people, understand what makes a good firefighter. When a human resources manager restricts hiring for the fire department only to candidates with academic degrees, this, in my opinion, is wrong. The fire service of our day and the fire service of today still need the practical person with a good work ethic. We want to start with a firefighter-type person (not fire chiefs as new hires) and allow that person to progress up through the ranks, based on his abilities. That’s the “truth” of the fire service.
All of us have limitations. That’s also why we have an issue with the city managers who manage our fire departments. They keep us to a standard, yet allow such standards to be diluted with new hiring practices.
I am glad I am retired now. I really don’t have to face these issues anymore. Also, I am not naive enough to know things don’t change. Things can change. But, the standard of performance, work ethic, or devotion to the cause shouldn’t change. In my opinion, you have to be in 100 percent, or you are not in. Show up on time, in uniform, ready to devote yourself to the profession and the folks you are sworn to serve. If you present yourself in a professional, neat manner and do the best you can, you will never have questions about yourself, and you can rest assured that no one else will.
My wife says I’m a hard-liner, but where do you draw the line when it comes to a standard? What would you say to a Marine?

Do you think the new generation of firefighters will agree with Dave? It appears that the newer generations of firefighters believe that family and lifestyle have a higher priority than spending additional time at work. Their saying is, “Happiness is seeing the fire station in my rear-view mirror.”

Baby Boomers—Born 1946-1964

Individuals of this generation got to observe, or maybe even experience, the hippie era. Think about the traditionalist we just discussed living through this era of “free love,” Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, Joan Baez, and The Who. While their children embraced all of these things, it was a culture shock for the parents. This generation was best epitomized by the Beatles song “All You Need Is Love.”

The traditionalist thought all you “needed” was hard work. When the baby boomers entered the workforce, they were compelled to challenge the status quo because of the times in which they were raised. It is ironic that their parents seldom questioned anything (“Son, you can’t fight City Hall”), whereas this generation was comfortable asking “Why?” It seemed to be the most natural thing in the world for them to want to know why rules and regulations were important or necessary. Because they had the courage to question the status quo, they deserve a lot of credit for many of the rights and opportunities we now take for granted. Their boundless optimism led many to fight for changes that improved many facets of our workplace and family lives.

Because of their large numbers, the baby boomers faced competition from each other for jobs. In the private work sector, they invented the 60-hour workweek, figuring that demonstrating hard work and loyalty to employers was one way to succeed. Their sense of who they are is deeply connected to their career achievements. So, as you can see, while this generation may have questioned the status quo, they retained the work ethic of their traditionalist parents. As a whole, this generation is politically adept when navigating political minefields in the workplace.

Generation Xers—Born 1965-1981

This generation could actually be called the “Tech Generation,” having grown up in the era of the advent of video games and personal computers. The influences of the baby boomers’ values and strong work ethic collided with what they observed while growing up. This generation was the first to witness skyrocketing divorce rates, parents being laid off after years of dedicated service to their employers, challenges to the presidency, and other unnerving scandals involving organized religion and big corporations. This erosion of what their parents held dear and had raised them to believe were givens instilled in them a sense of skepticism and distrust of institutions. Because they haven’t seen employer loyalty, their loyalty quotient to an employer can be very low.

In contrast to the baby boomers, Generation Xers believe that work is not the most important thing in their lives. They are resourceful and hardworking; but once their workday is over, they’re out of there.

Having grown up with the multitude of technological advances, they have a firm grasp of the latest innovations and have little patience for those who don’t immediately understand them (How do you work this iPod?). Although technology can simplify some facets of our lives, it also has the downside of creating a big divide among generations. E-mail, text messaging, and teleconferencing are second nature to a generation that finds it necessary to work with an older generation who prefers face-to-face communication. E-mail, PDAs, iPhones, and Blackberries have replaced the value the older generation found in human interactions.

When the Generation Xers joined the fire service, this older generation’s expectation was that these “new kids” would enthusiastically adopt the values and work ethic of the baby boomer and traditionalist generations. As with other generational interactions, this expectation never came to fruition. Ironically, we now see the Generation Xers making the same mistake with the Millennials. It seems fitting that the Generation Xers are now facing the same melding of values that the traditionalists had to deal with when baby boomers entered the fire service. The Millennials have already shown us that they will not be simply a younger version of the Generation Xers. Are we starting to see a pattern here?

Millennials—Born 1982-1999

Many of this generation are still in school, but the oldest Millennials are now entering the workforce. Millennials were raised by optimistic parents who imparted to them an “anything is possible” attitude. Their parents have been “fully involved” in the lives of the Millennials and have convinced them that they control their own destiny, notwithstanding a little help from the parents. And “a little help from their parents” can mean anything from free room and board into their late 20s up to and including going to job interviews with the Millennial candidate.

Millennials are eager to learn and question things. They are confident and have high self-esteem. They reject the notion of being limited by the guidelines established by the organization or the rigid confines of a job description. Additionally, Millennials don’t seem to be motivated by mission statements or the “good for the organization” philosophy. Think about how this clashes with the paramilitary nature of the fire service, civil service job classifications, and rules and regulations. Some people feel that the Millennials are not prepared to work in the fire service. The real question is, is the fire service ready for the Millennials?

My (Stein) 25-year-old grandson Jason, a “cusper” spanning the Generation Xer and the Millennial generations, describes himself as follows. (Jason is a graduate of Loyola Marymount University and is a financial consultant.)

I am what is termed a Generation Xer, a moniker that is usually offered in the same tone as “young whippersnapper”; for all intents and purposes, they are probably interchangeable, given the way they are used. However, I would consider myself a traditionalist, and I know many of my friends view themselves in a similar way. I believe in the same fundamental principles that spawned the Industrial Revolution and created the Post-Great War American culture—that of working hard, providing for your family, and an assiduous pursuit of the American dream.
I do, however, have an additional perspective that I believe offers a distinction between my generation and that of the more traditional generations of the past 50 years. I strive to attain a work/life balance. This is a term very common among the current generation. While we still wish to work hard and demonstrate our dedication, we also wish to maintain a fulfilling life outside of work—clearly delineating between the two and striving for advancement in both concurrently. This balancing act can sometimes place additional pressures on the younger worker, which can often be misconstrued as laziness, indifference, or a lack of respect for authority. While that can sometimes be the case, it is more likely that there is an underlying imbalance trying to resolve itself. The balancing act doesn’t always work, but we’re a generation that thinks anything is possible.

We agree with Jason. In our generation, most people measured the quality of life by the list of accolades, achievements, and number of toys they had. Success is getting what we want, and most people want wealth and status. Yet, as much pleasure as these attributes can bring, the rich, powerful, and famous usually discover that true happiness will elude them if they don’t have peace of mind, self-respect, and enduring loving relationships.

Peace of mind doesn’t preclude ambition or desire for material possessions or a high position, but it assumes a fundamental foundation of contentment, gratitude, and pride—a belief that whatever one has is enough—and an active appreciation for the good things in life.

We know people who have dedicated their lives to early promotion in the fire service. Most have achieved their goal; however, in the process they have lost their family, friends, and sometimes even themselves.

Our question to them is, “Was it worth it?”


Sometimes, we just don’t understand our coworkers. The reason often is that we don’t appreciate the difference in generations and the values they acquired while growing up.

The first rule is to avoid stereotyping. Not all the characteristics we discussed apply to all the people of a generation. The more you learn about a person from a different generation, the easier it is to bridge the generation gap in the workplace. It is also important to be aware of your differences and to remember that none of us is truly the “same.” The life experiences of your fellow workers are major contributing factors to the way they think and behave.

Appreciating someone’s strengths and understanding their weaknesses are signs of wisdom. Instead of being distressed by differences, focus on the strengths. Everyone in the organization, from the future Hall of Fame candidate to the person who just shows up and does his job, usually has something to offer. Finding ways to interact can be mutually beneficial.

As an example, there once was a crew member who would do the morning chores at the station and then go sit down in a chair when he was finished. He never offered to help others. (Don’t ask us what generational characteristic this is, because I don’t know!) The company officer became aware of this, became frustrated, and decided that every extra detail, small or large, would be assigned to this individual. What that officer discovered was that every time this firefighter was asked to do something extra, he did it with enthusiasm and without complaint, and he did a good job. The officer was shocked, and his initial opinion that this member suffered from “generational laziness” was dispelled. All that were needed were some communication and direction. Using each other’s positive attributes helps the whole organization. Sometimes, we just have to look a little harder to find the answers.



The Generation Xers and Baby Boomers

  • Show respect. Let the baby boomers know that you are ready to learn from them. Many Generation Xers have more formal education than baby boomers. The difference in education levels should not be a barrier to learning from the baby boomers’ years of experience.
  • Don’t multitask in the presence of the baby boomer. For Generation Xers, this kind of activity is a way of life. However, if you are sending e-mails, using your Blackberry or text messaging while your baby boomer workmate is talking to you, you’re not showing much respect to either generation. Although this applies to everyone, give the baby boomer your full attention (this applies to all generations; it fosters mutual respect in the workplace).
  • Understand the game playing. Baby boomers are very good at playing office politics because they have seen so much of it. Even though the Generation Xer might disapprove of game playing, it is usually present in a workplace.
  • Be receptive to learning the ropes from the baby boomers’ experiences. The fire service is an extremely traditional organization. Be aware of the traditions that are important to the baby boomer. No matter how you may feel about traditions, one of the most irritating things to the baby boomer is the new recruit who wants to change things without getting the facts and evaluating what has gone on before.
  • The baby boomer may seem highly resistant to change and you may see yourself as a change agent, but it’s important to understand that the baby boomers have seen many changes in the fire service over the past 30 to 40 years. The fire service they joined was a lot different from today’s fire and EMS delivery systems. For the most part, these baby boomers have adapted to these changes. Sometimes it just takes a little more time and a lot more patience.

Baby Boomers and Generation Xers

  • Get to the point. Generation Xers want to know the bottom line. Forget the rhetoric and clichés. If you want them to accomplish something, be direct and concise; if possible, let them know why they are doing what you ask.
  • Use e-mail. Some matters can easily be handled by e-mail; others require face-to-face contact. It’s important to use each communication method appropriately.
  • Don’t micromanage. When you give an assignment to Generation Xers, delegate the result, not the process. They will appreciate it, and it will cultivate respect.
  • Have fun. Don’t be overly intense. Enjoy what you are doing. They are!
  • Be aware of the different generational priorities. Generation Xers may not care how tough you had it in the “old days” and how many times you made personal sacrifices to complete an important project. They may not be interested in working on department business on their day off. Their priority is usually a healthy work-to-life balance.

Working with the Traditionalists

Most traditionalists have retired from the fire service workforce. However, some are still out there, usually because of their love of the career.

  • Honor the chain of command. Traditionalists have a respect for authority, and they expect it. Remember, the fire service they joined was run like a military operation. The question of why this is so was seldom allowed to be asked. And often, if asked, it was not answered.
  • Respect them. Traditionalists value their legacy and contribution to the organization. They, and others before them, have preserved a level of respect and an honored legacy we all enjoy today.
  • They have “been there and done that.” Value their experience.
  • Show appreciation and respect for their service. Note how many times the word “respect” is used here? Get the hint?

Working with the Millennials

  • Understand that the families of Millennials have been an integral part of their life experience—from helping them with their homework to helping them make career decisions. They want their families to know how well they are doing.
  • Challenge them. They love responsibility. Give them important projects to work on, and then get out of their way. Recognize their good work, when warranted. Let them know their efforts are appreciated.
  • Involve them. They want to be involved in the decision making no matter how small the decision.
  • Find them a mentor. Traditionalists and Millennials usually respect each other and, consequently, get along. Hook the Millennial up with a traditionalist mentor, and you can usually expect great results.
  • Provide instant feedback. Millennials want to know how they are doing immediately. Whether it’s receiving their grades by e-mail, taking online courses, or the instantaneous responses provided by text messaging, they have come to expect immediate feedback.


We don’t claim to be experts on this topic, but, like the traditionalists and the baby boomers, we have had the opportunity to witness and experience the major changes the fire service has gone through over the past 30 to 40 years and the influx of newer generations. If none of the observations, ideas, and suggestions discussed here work for you, just remember that every one of us came to the fire service career, usually with great effort and sacrifice, for the same reasons. We thought it was exciting. We liked the idea of helping others. We knew that the fire service in America is highly respected. And, we wanted to be part of the fire service no matter how many years it took, how many nights and early mornings we spent in parks and on the front steps of City Hall to sign up and take all of those Civil Service exams and physical agility tests.

If you take a minute to think about it, even though we are all from different generations and have different values and behaviors, we have a lot more in common than we think. We all desire to do our very best every single day we come to work. We know that on almost every call, we make a positive difference in people’s lives. About 99.9 percent of us look forward to going to work. In addition, we are all proud to wear the firefighter badge and are thankful for having the best job in the world. So, the next time you look at those new recruits, think about what brought them to the job you cherish. You will come to realize that you probably have more in common with them than you think.

PAUL H. STEIN retired as a chief officer from the Santa Monica (CA) Fire Department. During his 31-year career, he was a supervisor for 25 years. He has served as line officer, battalion commander, fire marshal, and division chief/training officer. After his retirement, he served as interim chief for the Lakeside (CA) Fire Department. He has served as the fire technology coordinator at Santa Monica College, an instructor for the California Fire Academy System, and a former adjunct faculty member for the National Fire Academy. He has an A.S. degree in fire technology and a B.A. degree in management. He is a master instructor for the California Department of Education.

ETTORE BERARDINELLI retired from the Santa Monica (CA) Fire Department in 2003, where he served as chief since 1997. He joined the department in 1972 and also served in the positions of firefighter, paramedic, engineer, captain, training officer, battalion chief, and deputy chief. He has a lifetime teaching credential and has taught fire technology courses at Santa Monica College over a 20-year span.

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