There is an old joke about the differing cultures of the four military services: if given the command “secure the building,” the Army would establish a defensive perimeter around the building, the Marine Corps would assault and clear the building, the Navy would turn out the lights and lock the door, and the Air Force would take out a three-year lease on the building with an option to buy. While the joke is fundamentally about differences in lexicon—what “secure” means to each service—it also helps us remember the very real differences in worldview and culture of those four military services.
Differences in worldview and culture between generations within each of the services may be as profound as those between the services themselves. If told to “dominate the information environment,” senior officers would likely first think about securing their command, control, and communications systems while attacking those of the enemy. Field-grade officers may think about protecting cyberspace, securing data, and employing electronic warfare. The order hits different for the Army’s youngest officers, who might turn to TikTok to control the narrative and win the battle for influence. Leaders from each generation would not only interpret the order differently, but also have different methods for executing what they thought they were being asked to do.
Key differences in generational traits may ease some of the difficulties of future warfare, but they will also create new challenges that have not been a problem for Army leaders in the recent past. Concerns over trust in systems enabled by artificial intelligence and machine learning may be alleviated as younger, more digitally fluent officers move into senior leadership positions. Given time to train with and iterate on new technologies, younger generations could have little problem optimizing system interfaces, refining algorithms, and determining best practices for human-machine teams. However, the challenges of the future battlefield will not be limited to individuals’ adaptation of new technologies. With forces potentially operating semi-independently, distributed at greater distances, and with degraded and intermittently available networks, clear communication and high degrees of trust will be of greater importance in future conflicts. The increased technological fluency of the Army’s youngest soldiers has arguably come at the cost of interpersonal communication and individual resiliency, further compounding the psychological costs and challenges to organizational resiliency associated with Army forces conducting operations on highly lethal battlefields influenced by technological blackholes and misinformation.
To be sure, there are risks and limitations to discussing traits that may be broadly indicative of a generation but are certainly not uniformly embodied. We recognize that many factors separate individuals beyond when they were born, that members of a single generation will have experienced unique influences and demonstrate individual preferences, strengths, and weaknesses. The dividing lines between generations are also artificial, making it especially difficult to categorize those whose age puts them close to these dividing lines. Yet, as respected research organizations have argued, age is one of the most important predictors of individuals’ attitudes and behaviors. Where they fall in their life cycle, global events that occur during their lives, and the influence of their peers shape the traits of entire generations. This article uses research on generational dynamics and our experience teaching and mentoring cadets in Generation Z in an effort to understand how differences between generations should influence Army leaders.
The practice of leadership results from the interaction of context, leaders, and followers. While the previous two articles in the series explored the changing context of warfare and its consequences for Army leaders, this article explores the final leg of the paradoxical trinity of leadership: followers. Today’s junior officers and enlisted soldiers will be the leaders of tomorrow’s Army. These soldiers will adopt much of their leadership style through experience, training, and education, but some of their leadership preferences are a consequence of their environment and upbringing. To better understand the effect of that environment on preferences and attributes, this article examines the three generations of soldiers that currently fill the Army’s ranks and projects those trends forward to explore the interaction of those traits with the character of future warfare.
Generations X, Y, and Z
A “generation” is a group of people whose upbringing is shaped by the same societal forces and experiences, causing them to share certain traits, characteristics, and attitudes. Generations are therefore grouped and labeled according to birth year because major geopolitical events, technologies, and societal trends are formative for how each generation is raised. Although the exact boundaries separating generations are somewhat arbitrary, the differences between generations are very real. The following generational descriptions are particular to people in the United States, but certain characteristics, such as an increasing reliance on technology, have cross-cultural relevance.
Generation X, which followed the baby boomers, include those born from 1965 to 1980. Except for the most senior general and flag officers (who are boomers), most of the military’s senior leadership is Gen X. Gen X was raised during the end of the Cold War before most families had a computer or cell phones. Members of this generation consumed information from physical newspapers, magazines, radio, and television, making them digital immigrants to the world of smartphones and social media. Most Gen X officers served in the Army prior to 9/11, and now that the military has shifted its focus away from irregular warfare to conventional warfare, they are the only cohort of leaders to have direct experience serving in an Army preparing to fight peer states rather than insurgents and terrorists. This institutional memory is critical for the Army to relearn certain skills that degraded over the past two decades, but it can also be a hindrance to thinking about creative and new ways to operate, organize, and equip for large-scale combat operations. According to responses to a survey we conducted of cadets at West Point in 2021, these young leaders from Generation Z view people in Generation X as overly traditional, inflexible, and risk averse, but also loyal, independent, and resilient. Although the sample size was not large enough for statistical analysis, the descriptions are in line with characterizations of generational traits from external sources.
Generation Y, also known as millennials, are those born from 1981 to 1997. This generation currently populates what is essentially the military’s mid-career management tier, primarily Army officers in the ranks of captain through lieutenant colonel and most of the noncommissioned officer corps. Millennials’ worldview is shaped by their upbringing in the post–Cold War era that also included the 9/11 attacks and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. They are mostly digital natives, though many had already finished high school by the time key technologies like smartphones and social media were developed. The social media platforms most frequently used by millennials are YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Some millennial noncommissioned officers were in the Army a few years before 9/11, but millennial officers have only known the post-9/11 military. More so than any other generation of leaders, millennials naturally face the biggest challenge in divorcing themselves from experiences in the post-9/11 wars that have consumed their entire careers. The lack of experience serving in an Army training for large-scale combat operations may make it difficult to gain proficiency in certain skills, but it also leaves millennials intellectually open to approaching large-scale wars in entirely new ways. Based on the survey of Gen Z cadets, they view millennials as cynical, fickle, and selfish, yet more adaptive, innovative, empathetic, and risk tolerant than their Gen X predecessors.
Generation Z, which has several monikers like “iGen” and “NetGen,” includes those born from 1998 to 2016. The Army’s junior officers and enlisted members, and new recruits, are primarily Gen Z. This generation was also raised with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as a constant. Many in Gen Z are digital dependents, growing up with computers, smartphones, and social media as the norm. This has caused many in Gen Z to be somewhat immune to branding, instead focusing on individual personalities they view as more authentic. These dynamics lead Gen Z to use social media platforms like YouTube, Snapchat, and TikTok rather than platforms like Facebook and Twitter used more heavily by the older generations. The ubiquity of disinformation and increasing political polarization has affected all generations, but Gen Z may view this as the norm rather than a departure from previous political discourse. Their military experience began as the post-9/11 wars were drawing to a close, leaving most of Gen Z untethered to what the Army institutionally identified as its best practices both before and after 9/11. When thinking about adapting the Army for future war, this inexperience can be as much of an asset as it is a limitation. To the degree that professional practices need to change, members of Gen Z have the least attachment to what the Army has done in the past, making their contributions to the future of the profession critical. Gen Z cadets describe themselves as technologically dependent, fragile, depressed, and unfocused, but also more tech savvy, socially aware, creative, and tolerant than millennials or Gen X. The COVID pandemic has been difficult on every generation, but years of social isolation may have been especially difficult for members of Gen Z, who were in key developmental stages when the pandemic was at its peak.
The traits of each generation and their relationships with technology manifest in distinct communications and leadership preferences. As compared to previous generations, Generation Z prefers more inclusive leadership styles that provide them with context and personal meaning. The Army’s traditional managerial leadership styles are likely to conflict with these preferences, contributing to units that are less cohesive, less trusting, and ultimately less effective in combat. Failing to adapt the Army’s culture to increase personal investment and make people feel less like a cog in a machine will also have a profoundly negative impact on the Army’s ability to retain the most talented officers and noncommissioned officers. In short, changes in generational dynamics along with changes in the character of war should result in changing the practice of leadership in the Army.
Generations and Future Warfare
In 2040, millennials will fill the general officer and senior enlisted corps, while Gen Z will be the Army’s battalion commanders. These dynamics will offer a natural solution to some of the problems the military foresees with future warfare, like providing commanders and staffs with decision support tools enabled by artificial intelligence and machine learning. The digital natives of the millennial generation who grew up using tools like Google Maps will likely have more trust in these tools than the Army’s current senior officers. However, even digital natives cannot be expected to seamlessly integrate new technology into military operations without gradual and deliberate efforts to incorporate it into training. An experiment conducted at West Point in 2017 demonstrated that even younger, technologically fluent cadets preferred analog imagery over virtual reality (VR) goggles to prepare for a raid. Without experience to master that type of operation and without previous exposure to the new technology, the VR goggles seemed more overwhelming than helpful. Once technologies are adopted, there could be a dangerous over-reliance on digital communications, space, and cyber tools that are all vulnerable to disruption and degradation.
Apart from their relationship to technology, issues like interpersonal communication, resiliency, and trust could be cause for concern as millennials and Gen Z assume the top leadership roles in the Army. Many researchers have noted that the increased digital fluency of Gen Z has come at a cost to interpersonal communication skills. No new technologies or tools will ever substitute for the importance of commanders building trust through personal interactions with subordinates and clearly communicating their intent. Despite being raised as social media users, Gen Z is also no more adept at separating fact from fiction and identifying misinformation than older generations (in fact, they may be more susceptible to disinformation). Cognitive attacks against soldiers and their families will be the norm rather than an exception in the future, requiring both enhanced information fluency and personal resiliency.
Adversarial attacks targeting cognition, communications networks, and digital systems will place an increasing premium on the role of trust in Army formations. Establishing trust within and among units is essential for diminishing the effect of an enemy’s disinformation and propaganda by preventing the seeds of doubt from being planted. Perhaps more importantly, Army formations will be required to operate in a more distributed fashion and with less consistent communications on a future battlefield. Unlike the post-9/11 wars where senior officers could monitor (and sometimes even direct) every action of their subordinate units, in the future units will be expected to accomplish the commander’s intent without guidance or communications. Formations must also deliberately train to sequence and synchronize their operations with one another without constant communications, requiring tremendous trust between peers.
Building trust is fundamentally a leadership issue that commanders must focus on. Trust can be built through deliberate training and exercises, but it is ultimately the result of positive leadership styles that focus on building teams over preparing individuals. Yet according to surveys of Army leadership described in part three of this series, Army leaders struggle with the traits needed to build teams more than those required to prepare themselves as individuals. As discussed in this article, the traits Gen Z members associated with Gen X—traditional, inflexible, and risk averse—are in direct competition with Gen Z’s self-described technological dependency, fragility, and lack of focus. The requirement for future Army leaders to individually prepare will never go away, but future warfare will likely place a premium on building trust, demonstrating empathy, and interpersonal communications skills that Army leaders across all generations struggle with today.
Today’s Followers are Tomorrow’s Leaders
In 2040, the Army Chief of Staff will be a millennial and the battalion commanders will all be from Generation Z. Both of these generations have particular strengths and weaknesses distinct from the Army’s current generation of boomers occupying the most senior leadership levels and the members of Generation X serving as colonels and above. In a profession that cherishes its long lineage and emphasizes stewardship, the tendency for senior officers is to try and shape followers to fit their same mold. The Army’s rigid personnel policies and promotion systems reinforce these tendencies, reproducing leaders that are far more similar to one another than they are different. As summarized by a RAND report on officer development, “‘Ducks pick ducks’: there is a tendency for promotion boards to select officers whose career experiences are comparable to their own.”
Mentorship and professional development will remain critical, but current leaders should seek a way to retain the creativity, adaptability, and empathy of younger generations. Even though it is a massive bureaucracy, the Army would benefit by adapting to the younger generations just as much as these generations will benefit from professional experience and growth. With warfare becoming more complex, the Army will need an officer corps with an increasingly diverse set of skills and individual officers who are as adaptive and innovative as they are disciplined and fit. The only way to develop these officers is to lean into some of the unique strengths of Generations Y and Z and reward them for changing the mold rather than simply fitting it. Generations of soldiers, the character of warfare, and the demands on leaders will always be inextricably linked. As the context of war changes, leaders need to understand the interaction between the character of warfare and the characteristics of their followers, adapting their own leadership styles as necessary to ensure their organizations meet the emergent challenges. The final article in this series will offer recommendations on how to better prepare leaders for these challenges.
Colonel Al Boyer is the director of the Department of Military Instruction at the United States Military Academy. He was formerly the director of the USAFRICOM commander’s action group, the commander of 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne Division, and a US Army War College Fellow at Columbia University’s Social-Organizational Psychology program.
Cole Livieratos is an Army strategist currently assigned to the Directorate of Concepts at Army Futures Command. He holds a PhD in international relations, is a nonresident fellow at the Modern War Institute, and is a term member at the Council on Foreign Relations. Follow him on Twitter @LiveCole1.
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Army Futures Command, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Michael Lopez, US Army