Fire Commentary: Introducing Generation Y

By Matthew B. Thorpe

As the war of recruiting battles on, many fire departments have started to hire the new generation of firefighter. With the hiring of a new generation also comes the challenge of meeting the needs of the said generation. The first step in accomplishing this is to understand the general mind-set of that generation.

Generation Y: Born 1980-2000

Also referred to as “Eco-boomers,” “Millennium Generation,” or “Y’ers,” these individuals differ significantly from past generations. Unlike other generations who rely on others, Y’ers are extremely self-reliant. They were brought up in a realm of high divorce rates and dual-income families, so many were left to fend for themselves. The problem with this is that the Y’ers have been oversupervised. Because families are so busy, a lot of times the Y’ers are enrolled in many before- and after-school activities. Being micromanaged by parents, teachers, and coaches, these individuals will need instruction in time management. They have a strong “get it done” attitude but lack the skills necessary to accomplish their goals. This is where leadership comes into play. Although confident and determined, these individuals rarely know exactly how to achieve long-term goals. They need a leader who will make time for them, make them feel part of the organization, and listen to their ideas. In an organization that is scared of change, Y’ers will constantly introduce new ways of doing things. If you want to keep their interest–TRY IT. Even as we say, “Don’t reinvent the wheel,” Y’ers are trying to come up with a new shape. Constantly putting down their ideas will shut the doors of communication.

Whom do you contact when your DVD player breaks or your computer locks up? Try a Y’er. Being brought up in a world of cell phones and the Internet, they are extremely computer savvy. They crave technology. They want and need information immediately. Nothing seems to be fast enough. Proof of this lies in Internet connections. Remember how slow your first Internet connection was? Constant improvements have been made it quicker and quicker. If the average download time takes 20 seconds, that would be 20 seconds too long for these young adults. Although these individuals have more knowledge than their parents, they are often overlooked because of it. They come across as arrogant and snobbish, but this is usually because they are aware of their own skills. Emergency service organizations would be wise to harness the talent of these young individuals. Fuel them with information, and use their knowledge. This will keep them interested.

Since the introduction of Generation Y, volunteer fire departments have seen a decline in younger members. Some of the Junior Firefighter programs that used to have 12 members now may have only three. This is not to say that they are all lazy, couch potatoes, and computer geeks, but rather that the emergency services must learn to attract these new high-tech individuals. We must learn to adapt to them and gain an understanding of what they might bring to our service. We must learn to focus their energy so that we can retain tomorrow’s firefighter and EMS worker.

Matthew B. Thorpe is a 14-year veteran of the fire service and a research and program development specialist with the North Carolina Department of Insurance Office of the State Fire Marshal. He was the assistant chief of operations for the City of King (NC) Fire Department from 1992 to 2008. He is a Certified Level III instructor for the state and teaches for numerous community colleges across North Carolina. He has taught in the FDIC HOT program and is working on the fourth edition of Building Construction for the Fire Service. He holds numerous state certifications and has just completed the Fire Officer III course.

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