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A new generation is shaking up the fire service

It may seem like millennials are still the young newbies at work, but in reality, it’s the “iGen,” and they are completely different


In general, members of the youngest generation at work are by far the most inclusive and socially tolerant of all previous generations.

Photo/Greg Friese

Just as fire departments are getting used to working with millennials, another generation is coming along. This generation is significantly different from their predecessors and will require some adaptations in leadership and management for them to contribute to their fullest.

The newest generation, born after 1995, is just now entering the workforce. They have been called “iGen” by author and researcher Jean Twenge, an expert on generational differences. In her book “iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy – and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood,” Twenge discusses some key characteristics of this generation, including the fact that these young people are the first to have lived their entire lives connected to the world via the internet and social media.

Social media is a way of life

For members of this new generation, total and constant connection isn’t even a choice; it’s just the way things are.

Ms. Twenge’s book uses statistically valid surveys and demographic research tools to draw general conclusions about the youngest generation. Of course, such generalizations do not apply to everyone, but rather show trends among large groups. Through this research, a few important aspects of this new generation can be identified.

One of the key differences in this generation is that most of their social interaction takes place virtually rather than face-to-face. Whereas previous generations hung out together in person, this generation experiences most of its social interaction online or via social media platforms, such as Twitter or Snapchat.

For fire departments hiring these young people, it means that they may not have fully-developed social skills. They may lack expertise and confidence with in-person communication and conflict resolution.

Diversity, job security expected by new generation

In general, members of the youngest generation at work are by far the most inclusive and socially tolerant of all previous generations. They accept diversity as a fact of life and expect the workplace to be fair and welcoming to all. They will not be attracted to organizations that do not share these values.

One of the most striking survey findings was the youngest generation’s attitude about safety. In general, people in this generation are less entrepreneurial than their predecessors and more averse to risk taking. They want security and safety in their lives, and therefore may be more attracted to stable employment versus the job-hopping behavior that was expected during the Internet boom. They may be more motivated by extrinsic factors in employment, such as benefits and job security, instead of opportunities for individual glory or achievement.

It is not surprising that this generation might have a different attitude regarding safety than those who preceded them. The oldest members of this generation were in preschool when the Columbine High School shooting took place and in first grade when 9/11 occurred, ushering in an era of similar violent acts in public spaces and preventative measures taken in response. This world is the only one they have ever known.

This generation is also much less secure in themselves than previous ones. One complaint that employers have about millennials is that they grew up in an era when everyone received a trophy for participation, and that they all felt entitled to praise and reward for simply doing what was expected of them.

Whereas millennials might need praise, members of iGen need reassurance and support. The bigger world seems less secure to them, but so does their personal life. Studies show that social media has led to higher rates of bullying among young people all the way into college. FOMO, or “fear of missing out,” is a real concern when every aspect of life is documented and shared. This young generation seeks inclusion more than recognition.

Cooperation a key characteristic of new generation

While some of these traits create challenges for employers, and specifically fire departments, they also create opportunities.

The newest generation at work wants to be part of a team. They are willing to work hard and will take direction. They may need more reassurance and support than previous generations, but they are also motivated to follow rules and respect others in the workplace, and they are loyal when their needs are met.

They are driven by a desire for safety, and thus will embrace an emphasis on safety culture in the emergency services. They may be easily distracted and have a shorter attention span than older firefighters, but are also willing to be led by example.

It is tempting to only see the challenges and negative aspects of any new generation that comes along. This has been true since ancient days; even Aristotle complained about the younger generation: “They have exalted notions, because they have not been humbled by life or learned its necessary limitations; moreover, their hopeful disposition makes them think themselves equal to great things.”

But organizations that indulge such complaints do so at a price: their own future. This newest generation at work is the only one you get. It is up to those with experience and wisdom to help them prepare for the challenges they face.

The rewards for such efforts are large. As Jean Twenge comments in her book, “Managers who can give them some security, along with some nurturance, may well find themselves with the hardest-working group of young people to come along in a decade or even two.”

Take your department in the direction you want. Get expert advice on how to effectively lead your fire department. 20-year veteran Linda Willing writes “Leading the Team,” a FireRescue1 column about fire department leadership.