Studies reveal new generation gap
July 31, 2008
By Don Kramer
FORT LEWIS, Wash. - Recent research appears to validate what some Army leaders have said for years: today's young recruits look at the world differently.
The staff psychologist of the 75th Ranger Regiment traveled from Fort Benning to Stone Education Center July 25 to share his observations that explain this modern version of a generation gap between Soldiers entering the service today and their older NCOs and officers. His audience was senior commanders and NCOs, staff and civilian leaders.
Major Art Finch said his presentation was aimed at providing context for Fort Lewis leaders seeking to understand what motivates young Soldiers.
One of Finch's primary responsibilities is screening applicants for the rigorous special operations environment. His comments came from his clinical and military experience and the clinical studies of his colleague, Dr. Jean M. Twenge of University of California at San Diego. Twenge wrote a best-selling book about her findings called "Generation Me," which he gives routinely to leaders who ask him for help with young Soldiers.
Finch defined "generation" broadly as that cohort of Soldiers born since 1980, officers and enlisted alike. He was careful to point out that most of his remarks were about attitudes and approaches to this generation's environment. Many deal with their impulses to become productive Soldiers and leaders. While his observations are general in nature, Finch said his experience counseling Soldiers and leaders in the Ranger Regiment broadly support the conclusions of Twenge's studies of the generations of Americans known best by the letters "X" and "Y."
The reflex of Soldiers of those generations, Finch said, is to disdain authority, demand their right to a variety of self-expression modes, tattoos among them, and to expect praise for merely showing up for duty.
"They don't just question authority; they flat-out disrespect it entirely," he said. "You really have to earn their respect. It will not come automatically just because of (your) rank or title."
Finch characterized this group as stubborn, isolated, unapologetically profane and direct to the point of bluntness. Approval from peer-groups is usually more important than from authority figures, even their families.
These young Soldiers often respond to directives by asking "Why'"
"And they really see nothing wrong with asking that question," Finch said, even in a military setting.
But the generation has its strengths, too. Its members multi-task with ease, he said, and they think on their feet and accept complex technologies as routine parts of life.
Finch and Twenge lay the blame for the generation's less productive behaviors squarely on the humanist movement in psychology, popular in the '60s and '70s. Its ideas found their way to the public school system, he said, which begat the self-esteem movement. Students taught under that philosophy learned that everything they did was praiseworthy. They routinely received rewards for participation rather than achievement.
"Here's the problem," Finch said. "Self-esteem has absolutely zero correlation with performance. In some cases, it's actually negatively correlated. It has absolutely no impact on producing effective, productive members of society."
Since the self-esteem movement didn't allow individuals to "own problems," young people became depressed and looked outside themselves for reasons for the gap between reality and their expectations.
"Life isn't quite as cool as they thought it would be and they're not quite as cool as they thought they were," he said.
The structure and discipline of military life exponentially increase the gap between reality and expectations. Drill sergeants aren't commonly known for coddling young people. Their goals are to produce productive Soldiers.
Recruiting appeals became more difficult to develop for this generation. Instructors in basic- and advanced individual training reported difficulties in controlling enlistees.
In response, the Army sought ways to better interact with young recruits.
"It really has required a shift in training and policies," Finch said.
Recruiters have worked in recent years to narrow the gap in understanding to soften the impact of military life. The "Army of One" advertising campaign arose from recognition of the evolving values of the new generation.
Finch said military life ironically offers a way for Generation-Me Soldiers to work through their native narcissism and contribute to something bigger.
"For a generation that has no boundaries, no rules, no regulations and no structure in their life, the military actually has a lot to offer," he said. "The military may be the only place in American society today where they'll ... understand what it's like to have self confidence and self control rather than this empty, vague notion of self-esteem. And then they start to become productive."
After chafing initially at the increased responsibility and lack of personal recognition, the military often becomes "the significant life-changing event for them, however long they end up serving."
Once they work through the crisis of their self perceptions slamming into reality, they often become extremely talented Soldiers, he said. Soldiers who stay and make the shift to internalize Army team values, he said, often become high performers.
Finch offered suggestions for military leaders who deal with Generation-Me Soldiers.
"Don't compromise standards out of existence," he said. If we do, "we no longer offer a solution, we no longer offer that structure.
"We need to better use technology for recruiting, training and communications on the battlefield," he said. "Use small-group approaches. Allow input. Do what makes sense, not just what the book says."
Don Kramer is a reporter with Fort Lewis' Northwest Guardian.