Gen-X and the Millennial: Let's Talk!

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Paul Birch
  • 4th Operations Support Squadron
It doesn't happen every time, but most people who've been in the Air Force for a few years have walked away from at least one meeting with a supervisor or subordinate feeling like they didn't connect and communicate an important issue very well. This feeling could be due to simple demographics. Most supervisors and commanders in today's U.S. Air Force were born between 1960 and 1980 -- the so-called "Generation X." The majority of the rest of the Air Force population is rounded out by individuals born from 1980 to 2002 -- the "Millennials." Whether we realize it or not, generational differences may impact how members of the two groups speak to each other. Here's how John North of the Dayton Business Journal* summarized the two generations' communication styles:

(are) skeptical, self-reliant, self-accountable and tend to go after what (they) want ... (They) don't mind risk and are results-focused. When (they) communicate, (they) prefer immediate, efficient results. (They) prefer you cut to the chase and like to avoid unnecessary meetings. (They'll) ask for feedback.

Millennials are driven by technology... They're optimistic, confident, strong achievers if properly motivated... On the other side, they tend to have little regard for authority, which can be challenging in the workplace. Millennials use technology whenever possible to communicate. They tend to put their feelings on the table. They want to be heard and it's best to present messages to them in a positive manner. They want feedback, but prefer it electronically.
Both styles have advantages. Gen-Xers get to the point quickly and efficiently -- ideal in a time-strapped force that needs to execute missions quickly. Millennials are adept at getting facts and feelings on the table early before problems fester. This allows information to flow quickly up the chain of command -- often a valuable commodity for military operations. But in a hierarchical military organization, the clash of generations can become dysfunctional quickly if it's not appreciated and managed by superiors and subordinates alike.
Commanders and supervisors therefore need to set expectations and conditions for successful communication with Airmen of different generations. Both "types" can gain by making adjustments from their typical communication style to get the most out of a conversation.

A Gen-X leader might benefit by opening up his aperture of listening wider and for a longer duration than he would normally when gathering information from a Millennial. One way a Gen-X leader can nurture better communication with Millennials is in the context of a structured individual counseling session or by using brainstorming rules in a group discussion. Brainstorming rules say that all ideas are valid and that all participants speak with an equal voice for as long as the session proceeds. Once the brainstorming session ends and information has been collected, communication patterns return to a traditional pattern. This embraces the Millenial communication style while still shoring up the authority required for effective military structure.

In contrast, a Millennial will find it easier to engage a Gen-X supervisor by moving away from strictly electronic communication, realizing that there's no substitute for engaging in person and in the moment. He would do well to appreciate that, once all the facts and feelings are out on the table and the supervisor has made a decision, it's time to move out and execute without further discussion.

The ideas of open communication out of the public spotlight, frank feedback, and "saluting smartly" after discussions with supervisors are time-honored military traditions. Thinking about the differences between our two predominant generational communication styles may make it easier for supervisors and subordinates alike to communicate more effectively in 2012.