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Part 2: How different generations see the fire service

From the newest recruit to the oldest officer, different firefighters bring a different outlook to the job; some of that is based on when they were born

Editor’s note: This first appeared on and is reprinted with permission.

By Paul Stein and Ettore Berardinelli

In the last article that we wrote on generation gaps in the fire service and we spent a lot of time on the Traditionalist (born 1935 to 1945). In this article we will identify birth years and the impact they have on one’s life orientations and tendencies.

The birth years defining generations are generalities, definitely not scientific and are not “carved in stone.”

You might identify with more than one generation if your birth year falls near the beginning or end of a given generation. If you fall into that category, consider yourself a “cusper,” someone who spans two generations.

Cuspers can be a valuable resource in any work group because they can identify with two generations. They can foster understanding between the two different groups and are often skilled at mediating, translating and mentoring between two different value systems.

With that said, let’s explore some different generational characteristics. First, let’s review the Traditionalist.

The Traditionalist: Born 1935 to 1945
Traditionalists are very patriotic, showing strong loyalty to their country and their employer. They have worked longer than any other generation and are now either approaching retirement or retired and, because of their generational characteristics, are probably still working in their retirement.

Although as children they lived through World War II, the world was rosy for the traditionalist. Most of their parents served in World War II, or on the home front, dealt with the fears, losses and acute shortages created by that world conflict.

These parents were very strict and maintained control of their children. Dad was the “bread winner” and “wore the pants in the family,” while most mothers were stay-at-home moms. Don’t try to tell these parents that children should never be spanked and/or that their kids had a right to privacy!

Baby Boomers: Born 1946 to 1964
Individuals born in this generation got to observe, or maybe even experience, the hippie era. Think about the Traditionalist we just discussed, living through this era of “free love,” Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, Joan Baez and The Who.

While their kids embraced all of this, it was a case of culture shock for the parents! This generation was best epitomized by the Beatles song “All You Need Is Love.”

The Traditionalist thought all you “needed” was hard work! When the Baby Boomers entered the work force, they were compelled to challenge the status quo because of the times they were raised in.

It is ironic that while their parents seldom questioned anything (“Son, you can’t fight City Hall!”), this generation was very comfortable asking, why. It seemed to be the most natural thing in the world for them to want to know the “why” of rules and regulations.

Because they had the courage to question the status quo, they deserve a lot of credit for many of the rights and opportunities we now take for granted. Their boundless optimism led many to fight for changes that improved many facets of both our work and family lives.

Due to their large numbers, they faced competition from each other for jobs. In the private work sector Baby Boomers invented the 60-hour workweek, figuring that demonstrating hard work and loyalty to employers was one way to succeed.

Their sense of who they are is deeply connected to their career achievements. So, as you can see, while this generation may have questioned the status quo, they did retain the work ethic of their Traditionalist parents. As a whole, this generation is politically adept when navigating political minefields in the workplace.

Generation X’ers: Born 1965 to 1981
This generation could actually be called the Tech Generation, having grown up in the era of the advent of video games and personal computers. The influences of the Baby Boomers’ values and strong work ethic collided with what they actually observed growing up.

This generation was the first to witness skyrocketing divorce rates, parents being laid off after years of dedicated service to their employers, challenges to the presidency and other unnerving scandals involving organized religion and big corporations.

This erosion of what their parents held dear and had raised them to believe as a given instilled a sense of skepticism and distrust of institutions. Because they haven’t seen employer loyalty, their loyalty quotient to an employer can be very low.

In contrast to the Baby Boomers, Gen X’ers believe that work is not the most important thing in their lives. They are resourceful and hardworking, but once their workday is over, they’re outta there!

Having actually grown up right along with the multitude of technology advances, they have a firm grasp of the latest innovations and have little patience for those who don’t immediately understand it. While technology has the ability to simplify some facets of our lives, it also has the down side of creating a big divide among the generations.

Email, text messaging and teleconferencing is second nature to a generation that finds it necessary to work with an older generation that preferred face-to-face communication. Email, PDA’s, iPhones and Blackberrys have replaced the value the older generation found in actual human interactions.

When the Gen X’ers decided to join the fire service, this older generation’s expectation was that these “new kids” would enthusiastically adopt the values and work ethic of the Baby Boomer and Traditionalist generations.

As with other generational interactions, this expectation never came to fruition. Ironically, we now see the Gen X’ers making the same mistake with the Millennials.

It seems fitting that the Gen X’ers are now facing the same melding of values that the Traditionalists had to deal with when Baby Boomers entered the fire service. The Millennials have already shown us that they will not be simply a younger version of the Gen X’ers. Are we starting to see a pattern here?

Millennials Born: 1982 to 1999
Many in this generation are still in school, but the oldest Millennials are now entering the workforce. Millennials have been raised by optimistic parents that have imparted to them an “anything is possible” attitude. Their parents have been “fully involved” in the life of the Millennials and have convinced them they control their own destiny, notwithstanding a little help from the parents!

And “a little help from their parents” can mean anything from free room and board into their late twenties, up to and including going to job interviews with the Millennial candidate!

Millennials are eager to learn and question things. They are confident and have high esteem. They reject the notion of being limited by the guidelines established by the organization or the rigid confines of a job description.

Additionally, Millennials don’t seem to be motivated by mission statements or by the old standby “it’s the good of the organization” philosophy. Think about how this clashes with the paramilitary nature of the fire service, civil service job classifications and rules and regulations.

Some people feel that the Millennials are not prepared to work in the fire service. The real question is, is the fire service ready for the Millennials?

In the first article we wrote, we included comments by our friend Dave Hubert. In this article, we are including a comment regarding values from my (PHS) grandson Jason.

Jason is 25 years old so that places him in the category of a cusper spanning the Gen-X’er and the Millennial generations. He is a graduate of Loyal Marymount University and currently working as a financial consultant. Here are his thoughts.

“I am what is termed a Gen X’er, a moniker that is usually offered in the same tone as ‘young whippersnapper,’ and for all intents and purposes, they are probably interchangeable, given the way they are used.

“However, I would consider myself a Traditionalist, and I know many of friends view themselves in a similar way. I believe in the same fundamental principles that spawned the Industrial Revolution and created the Post Great War American culture; that of working hard, providing for your family and an assiduous pursuit of the American dream.

“I do, however, have an additional perspective that I believe offers a distinction between my generation and that of the more traditional generations of the last 50 years: I strive to attain a work/life balance. This is a term very common amongst the current generation.

“While we still wish to work hard and demonstrate our dedication, we also wish to maintain a fulfilling life outside of work — clearly delineating between the two and striving for advancement in both concurrently.

This balancing act can sometimes place additional pressures on the younger worker, which can often be misconstrued as laziness, indifference or a lack of respect for authority. While that can sometimes be the case, it is more likely that there is an underlying imbalance trying to resolve itself. The balancing act doesn’t always work, but we’re a generation that thinks anything is possible.”

We agree with Jason. In our generation, most people measured the quality of life by the list accolades, achievements, and how many toys they had. In its simplest terms, success is getting what we want, and most people want wealth and status.

Yet as much pleasure as these attributes can bring, the rich, powerful, and famous usually discover that true happiness will elude them if they don’t have peace of mind, self-respect, and enduring loving relationships.

Peace of mind doesn’t preclude ambition or desire for material possessions or high position, but it assumes a fundamental foundation of contentment, gratitude, and pride — a belief that whatever one has is enough and an active appreciation for the good things in life.

We know people that have dedicated their life to early promotion in the fire service. Most have achieved their goal, however, in the process they have lost their family, friends, and sometimes, even themselves.

Our question to them is, “Was it worth it?”

We would like to hear from people of your generation. Share your thoughts with us regarding your life’s orientation, especially if you see these observations in a much different way.

Paul Stein and Ettore Berardinelli served as chiefs for the Santa Monica (Calif.) Fire Department.