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Closing the gap

The generation gap is nothing new. It was an aged Socrates who complained that the young “have bad manners . . . show contempt for authority . . . contradict their parents, gobble up their food and tyrannize their teachers.”

September 14, 2009
By James Careless

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The generation gap is nothing new. It was an aged Socrates who complained that the young “have bad manners . . . show contempt for authority . . . contradict their parents, gobble up their food and tyrannize their teachers.”

In today’s fire departments, the boomers are in authority; the generation Xers (born between 1960 and 1980) and generation Yers (born after 1980) are the rank and file. And much like Socrates, today’s boomer commanders find a lot of fault in their gen X/Y troops.

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“Specifically, gen X/Y firefighters have a tendency to question authority,” says Peter Sells, a district chief with Toronto Fire Services.

“When you tell them to do something, they want to know what’s in it for them,” adds Lou Wilde, assistant chief with the Kelowna Fire Department in B.C. “They don’t just do what they’re told, as boomers were trained to do.”

It is ironic that boomers are confounded by the younger generation’s lack of unquestioning obedience, given the boomers’ stated pride in questioning the system (at least when they were young). But ironies aside, there is a very real generation gap between today’s fire commanders and their rank and file. For departments to operate effectively and safely, this gap must be addressed and bridged. Lives depend on it.

■ Understanding the cultural gap
At their core, generation gaps are about social position. The older generation is in power and the upcoming generation isn’t and wants to be. As a result, conflict is inevitable.

This said, the fact that each generation grows up in different social, economic and political circumstances is extremely significant. Basically, each generation creates and is then burdened with its own culture. This is why the generation that grew up during the Great Depression and the Second World War is so different from the boomers, and the boomers’ culture isn’t the same as that of gen X/Y.   

That’s not all, says Kimberley Alyn, an international fire service speaker/trainer who recently delivered her Real Leadership in the Fire Service is Not for Wimps presentation at the 2009 Alberta fire chiefs convention.

“The gap between boomers and gen X/Ys is more the result of a shift in culture and parenting,” Alyn says. “The first issue is a cultural shift in technology dependence. The younger generations have grown up with technology and depend on it in every aspect of their lives. The older generations invented the technology that the younger generations are enjoying, but the boomers didn’t grow up with it. Technology advancements have allowed us to access information and get the things we want at a faster pace, a higher quality and a lower price. This has cultivated an immediate gratification culture that has emerged in the X and Y generations. This often leads to an entitlement mentality in the younger generation individuals who don’t have enough discipline in their lives to keep this mentality in check.”

“This leads us to the second issue – a cultural change in parenting,” Alyn says. “In most households of the X and Y generation, both parents are working. As a result, less discipline is used to correct behavior, instill manners and cultivate a strong work ethic. Unless some of the younger generation individuals were exposed to strong role models as children or young adults, they tend to need more mentoring in these critical areas than boomers would.”

Schooling has also changed since the boomers were young, warns assistant chief Wilde. “When we were in class, you could get the strap if you didn’t learn your multiplication tables,” he says. “But by the time gen X/Y went to school, this model had changed. So had the overall concept of teachers speaking and students taking notes. Gen X/Y kids were taught to question and to think for themselves. That opened up their minds but made it harder for them to fit into a paramilitary organization like a fire department, where obeying orders is part of the job.”

Even without these factors, the sheer difference in age makes a difference. “There is a big difference in maturity between a 40-year-old and a 25-year-old,” says District Chief Sells. “Even if everything else between the generations was the same, there would still be this difference. Think of yourself at 25; were you the same person you are today? Did you have the same priorities, discipline and goals? Not likely.”

■ Dealing with boomer and gen x/y conflicts
Now that we understand the players, let’s look at the conflicts between boomer commanders and their gen X/Y subordinates.

Fundamentally, boomer commanders want their subordinates to follow the rules of their paramilitary structure. There’s good reason for this: Commanders need to know their people will follow orders meant to save lives and suppress fires.

Gen X/Y firefighters are willing to follow orders, if these orders make sense to them. If not – if the orders seem arbitrary and unreasonable – they will tend to question them. They will also want a say in how orders and the policies that drive them are decided. If fire departments were democracies, this wouldn’t be a problem. But since they are not, it is.

Boomer commanders could simply rely on departmental sanctions to try to force their officers into obedience. Unfortunately, besides being an amusing exercise in karmic payback – how well did boomers actually follow orders back in the ’60s and ’70s? – such an approach would be doomed to failure. The best and brightest gen X/Y officers would likely quit.

Hence, boomer commanders who are serious about making their departments the best they can be – and dedicated gen X/Y officers who believe in the importance of being firefighters – need to meet somewhere in the middle.

Alyn has given much thought to this problem and offers some advice.

“Boomer commanders need to know that gen X and Y want to be part of the process and have input into that process,” she says. “This can create conflict in a paramilitary organization if Boomers are not accustomed to soliciting input and facilitating a more collaborative leadership style. Additionally, boomer leaders will need to spend more time mentoring the gen X and Y when it comes to manual labor activities and self-sacrifice.

“Also, these generations love technology and want to see it used to create a more efficient work environment,” she adds. “Boomer leaders need to tap into this passion and knowledge and allow the gen X and Y to teach them a thing or two about technology.

Next, Alyn says, gen X and Y need to understand that boomers come from a culture in which you show respect for people who are older than you. “Using manners and demonstrating respect goes a long way when attempting to build bridges with boomers,” Alyn says. “Also, while gen X and Y are teaching boomers about technology, they need to allow boomers to teach them about manual labor, tradition, history and work ethic. It’s alright to ask why and provide suggestions for improving processes, but the asking needs to be done with respect, not arrogance.”

Alyn says boomers have seen a lot of changes in the past 30 years and gen X and Y need to understand that some boomers struggle to keep up with all the technological advancements.

“Try to find other ways to interact and connect with boomers besides Facebook, MySpace, texting or Twittering,” she says. “Boomers still believe the most effective way to communicate is face to face, not through technology.”

Assistant Chief Wilde has his own thoughts on boomer and gen X/Y conflicts. “The various observations on the different generations have their value but I think it is important not to get caught up in stereotypes,” he says. “The real issue is the difference in maturity and position for the generations involved. That’s something that has played out since humans came into existence. One day the gen X/Y generation will have to deal with it, when they are in command.”

District Chief Sells agrees. “In dealing with generational conflicts, the key is for both sides to listen to each other. This means there is a place for discussion, as long as it doesn’t interfere with the proper command structure. Deciding how and when to hold such discussion is up to your department; making this decision is an opportunity to bring gen X/Y officers into the process.”

■ The moral
Boomers can get along with gen X/Y – and vice versa – as long as both sides understand that they come from different cultural positions and make an effort to bridge the gap. Making this happen requires give and take on both sides, without compromising the fundamental right of command to issue orders to protect the department, its firefighters and the public.


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