Are Millennials Compatible With U.S. Military Culture?

An editorial in a magazine published by the U.S. Naval Institute grouses about the behavior of Millennials: their constant texting ignores the chain of command and they're way too laid back to serve in the military. A Millennial naval officer has responded online—and he blew those complaints out of the water.

The opening salvo in this war of words began in the latest issue of Proceedings magazine. Commander Darcie Cunningham of the U.S. Coast Guard had this to say:

I currently supervise a crew that spans five generations, with Millennials (those born between 1980 and the late 1990s) abundantly represented. They have a different dynamic from generations past. I've struggled with their perceptions regarding the chain of command, their definition of a work ethic, and the need for instant reward. Recently I attended a webinar titled Manage Millennials and Keep Them Engaged , and my concerns were validated: this generation has me questioning how they can acclimate to the highly traditional, structured U.S. military.

Commander Cunningham proceeded to list the offending behaviors, which prompted this response from Matt Hipple, a self-described "naval officer by choice and Millennial by cruel twist of fate." Hipple poses the question: "Is there REALLY a strategic 'millennial culture' problem or are we using the idea to run away from our REAL problems?"

He then responds to each of Commander Cunningham complaints. Here are the highlights:

"This generation has me questioning how they can acclimate to the highly traditional, structured U.S. military."

To the cognitive bias about "traditional (&) structured" – let's talk about a generation in "general" terms being able to acclimate to those traditions and structures. The article is right – the millennial generation cannot row for days on end and do not like the sound of leather drums. I also find the horned helmet a bit heavy and the hamlets we burn down a bit boring.

"Upon hearing they would not be in-zone for promotion or advancement in a given year, these younger members declare they are fed up with the service and wish to resign. They have an expectation of accelerated advancement through the organization, without regard for the value that experience provides to those in leadership positions."

People complaining about being looked over for promotion would seem completely in-line with reactions since the time some random Athenian strategos was looked over for command during the Peloponnesian War.

"Customs and courtesies are eroding. Juniors are no longer smartly saluting seniors or verbally acknowledging higher ranks. On an almost daily basis, I hear, 'Hi, how's it going?'"

There is some truth here. Perhaps we can be a bit more informal at times. It's not a deadly sin, if a sin at all, but I suppose there are places where we could shore things up a bit. I, for one, do find more use in candid superior-subordinate engagements that usually lead to a bit more informality. That said, once I leave my office for lunch, I am pretty much saluting until I get back indoors if there is heavy foot traffic. I don't see any slack in the saluting department and, personally, I like it. It allows me to salute back—which is the part I like. Call me a romantic.

"Texting is becoming the primary mode of communication. It has already become a means of jumping the chain of command as a condoned communication tool."

Before we start, let us be clear about the problems here – "Jumping the chain of command" is not a "texting" problem. That is like saying a negligent discharge is a "bullet" problem. We shall touch on both.

To jumping the chain of command: Do we really see that much? I would say no. Let's not stop there, however. When we do, is it always so bad? Is the problem one of people being sneaky or people trying to get things done in a timely manner..... Of course, we do have an increasingly large number of supervisors and mangers running in parallel… perhaps an up-tick in "jumping the chain of command" is a natural side-effect of the increased number of bosses and not a symptom of generational issues?

To texting: there was a time when Sailors crossed the brow and didn't come back until the next day – or Monday. There was no command expectation to have a cellphone leash at all times. In fact, many commands now require Sailors to have cellphones so they can be recalled. Texting is a short, to-the-point communication that can be sent to the entire command's pocket - the ability to "leave a text" so someone comes in after a major casualty or maybe just a quick tool for finding people in one's work-center. Sounds like a success for readiness.

"And finally . . . this needs to be said: We must be prepared for the tough conversation. Will they truly be able to adapt to the service?"

Truly realize who we are talking about. These are uniformed service members who joined up in wartime to make a difference – what they're looking for is knowledge and relevance, not a fight with their boss or some empty accolade. It is a mature desire, one informed by a drive to defend our way of life, in the best way they can, at potentially shattering cost.

I think our nation's defense is in good hands.