Practical applications of generational differences among fire service members

Implementing supervision-focused best practices requires leaders to address their members’ different worldviews, work ethics and perspectives


The times are changing, and so too is the generational makeup of the fire service.

The current fire service workforce includes five generations: traditionalists (1900-1945), baby boomers (1946-1964), Generation X (1965-1980), millennials (1981-2000) and Gen Z (2001-present). With these age groups comes varied life experiences and aptitudes. An effective supervisor will work to harness the varied skills among their members – but they must first acknowledge and navigate the challenges that come with leading across generations.  

Here we’ll discuss methods to overcome supervisory challenges across generations for a more inclusive and effective fire service workforce.

An effective supervisor will work to harness the varied skills among their members – but they must first acknowledge and navigate the challenges that come with leading across generations.
An effective supervisor will work to harness the varied skills among their members – but they must first acknowledge and navigate the challenges that come with leading across generations. (Photo/Pat Travers)

The gateway to organizational talent

One of the most significant fire service changes we’ve seen in recent years is the shift toward prioritizing the complete person during hiring and promotional processes. While experience, aptitude tests and other metrics are valuable, placing too much value in them can create a narrowly focused path that favors some members and excludes others, including certain generations. Technical skills, competence and proficiency can be taught in a training academy or fire station. Hiring and promoting individuals who reflect the culture of the organization can be the difference between an average hire and an exemplary one. Remember, the initial hire or offer of employment is the gateway to organizational talent.

Undoubtedly, there are significant challenges in navigating this shift, embracing new generations, and implementing best practices for supervision of members with such varied experience and background. It’s time to reframe traditional supervisory practices if fire service leaders want to create a “bench strength” among its members.

Acknowledging the differences

A key step in the process of handling a multigenerational workforce is simply acknowledging the differences among the generations and the associated challenges. Some of the most prominent challenges involve communication style, negative stereotypes, and cultural expectations.

Communication: Millennials, for example, often prefer to communicate through digital technologies and social media with very informal rhetoric, while Generation X, baby boomers and traditionalists generally prefer face-to-face interaction, phone calls or emails.

Negative stereotypes: It is often assumed is that the younger a member, the less experience they hold and therefore the less worthy they are of their position. In public safety, this can dampen a younger officer’s confidence in the ability to do their job and cause them to lose trust in their superiors.

Cultural expectations: It is also important to highlight differing values and cultural expectations.

  • Traditionalists are typically straightforward, loyal, tactful and dependable. They are motivated by recognition, respect and stability in their occupation.
  • Baby boomers value company loyalty, teamwork and a sense of duty, and display team-orientated, workaholic, optimistic and competitive generational traits.
  • Generation X can be described as informal and skeptical, deeply valuing independence, flexibility, diversity, work-life balance
  • Millennials (or Generation Y) are considered to be civic-minded, competitive, open-minded and achievement-orientated. They value responsibility, experience and leadership quality in their workplace.
  • The Gen Z generation is characterized a being the most diverse of all previous generations. Additionally, they aren’t just tech-savvy, they are digital natives who seek opportunities to work with technology.

A multigenerational workforce requires leaders who are committed to fostering a cohesive and efficient workplace. Leaders must be flexible, proactive and adaptable to the changing values, attitudes and demeanors of the workplace demographic. Fire service leaders cannot ignore the transformation in generational demographics; in fact, refusing to embrace the change can lead to a negative work environment. Rather, fire service leaders must develop strategies, tactics and skills that motivate all generations.

Best practices for different generations

Implementing supervision-focused best practices requires leaders to address their members’ different worldviews, work ethics and perspectives of all generations within the workforce. It is important to note that the generational differences addressed here are generalizations based on research; not all people will fit perfectly into a category. Leaders should consider the impact of generational differences as just one piece of the puzzle. Life experience and world views have an impact that is equally, if not more, important than generational assignment.

Traditionalists: Traditionalists require stability in their job roles, opportunities to advance through the public safety hierarchy, and the assignment of satisfying work tasks to succeed. This group brings a wealth of information, knowledge, experience and tradition into the fire service. They fought fire with a lot less technology at their disposal. Organizations that work with traditionalists are fortunate to have access to their institutional knowledge and memories of how the fire service has evolved.

Boomers: Baby boomers value sacrifice for success, and thereby thrive with specific goals and deadlines, coaching-style feedback, and mentor roles in the workplace. Boomers have learned there is simply no unfixable problem, in the fire station or in life. In many cases, boomers have alternate viewpoints to discussions, which can be helpful for teams who are brainstorming or problem-solving.

Gen X: Generation X values opportunities for personal development and requires flexibility from managers to maintain their work-life balance. When Gen Xers first entered fire service, older generations felt they brought derision and paved the way for “slacker” values. However, this was also the generation that began to demonstrate a degree of tech-savvy that the fire service had never seen.

Millennials: Managers should aim to lead millennials by challenging them with unique experiences, providing flexibility, and fostering growth and development for their career path. Millennials firefighters tend to value and seek out flexibility as a path to success and a way to build the life they want, which can be misunderstood as a lack of focus, commitment and willingness to work hard. Many of the firefighters in this demographic are willing to leave a department if they do not feel they are gaining adequate life experience. As millennials begin to become the supervisors, they can avoid misunderstandings by valuing boomers’ work style and desire to work within the systems and structures that they so value.

Gen Z: As the boomer generation is retiring, Gen Z will be filling the vacancies. While Gen Z has many of the underpinnings of the millennial generation, including flexibility and attachment to technology, it wouldn’t be wise to lump them together. Millennials desire to be team players and value collaboration. While Gen Z members are willing to work with others, they thrive by pushing themselves independently. As organizations and leadership teams look to hire and engage Gen Z, we need to integrate more digital processes into recruitment, and be willing to monitor trends in technology. Gen Z is not just comfortable to the digital environment, they are the drivers of it.

Putting it into practice

The IBM Center for The Business of Government was created to connect research to practice, applying scholarship to real-world issues and decisions for government – and that includes the fire service.

The Center identified successful means and methods for government managers – including those in the fire service – to adapt to multi-generational workforces. Specifically, in “Engaging a Multi-Generational Workforce,” researchers Susan Hannam and and Bonni Yordi found that within the American workplace, there are three major shifts with the potential to either create disruption or opportunities:

  1. A growing multi-generational workforce;
  2. An increasingly dissatisfied workforce; and
  3. Rapid technological change and innovation.

Further, their report identified that these three shifts interlink, establishing key trends for supervisors to strengthen cohesiveness across workplace generational demographics. These trends include:

  • A rise in the use of new technologies to communicate;
  • A higher expectation for work-life flexibility;
  • Increased expectation for continual development;
  • The growing need for new ways to reward and recognize employees;
  • The urgent need to engage the entire workforce; and
  • A greater emphasis on innovation.

The researchers underscored practical advice to engage members across all generations. For example, to overcome a prominent challenge in communication, they recommend that leaders, when communicating and speaking to an individual, learn their members’ preferred method of communication (i.e., in person, phone, email) and encourage such use among the team. In general, while older generations expect and enjoy face to face communications, or picking up the phone to talk, millennials are more likely to send the call to voicemail and respond via email or text, and Gen Z will default to messaging platforms as well as Zoom, Teams and other forms of digital meetings.

The work-life balance tips aimed to create flexible options with enhanced and effective measures of accountability and productivity. They also aimed to retain top employees by demonstrating the progressiveness of an organization in offering lifestyle benefits. Unlike previous generations, millennials and Gen Z enjoy diverse interests outside of their professional identities. They embrace and understand the value of work-life balance. Additionally, if there was a profoundly positive impact of the past year’s pandemic, it has been the ability to utilize remote learning, conferencing and training. Organizations that offered this progressive model are more likely to reap the benefits of employee satisfaction and engagement.

Accounting for each generation’s preferences of information consumption was also an objective to address the increased expectation for continual growth and development. In many instances, the fire service has integrated digital platforms. From fire simulations, data management systems and digital staffing programs, the newest generations have embraced and encouraged these adaptive technologies.

Understanding the growing need for new incentives in recognition and rewards require supervisors to dedicate time in reevaluating their incentive system and offer a selection or “menu” of rewards, in addition to on-the-spot awards and recognition in performance reviews. This requires special talent and astute perception on the part of the supervisor. The critical point here is to recognize that not all employees are motivated by the same factors. In the fire service, people express and receive appreciation in different ways. If you try to express appreciation in ways that aren’t meaningful to your coworkers, they may not feel valued at all. Leaders wishing to explore this further should invest in reading “The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace.”

Final thoughts

Understanding generational differences and embracing change can lead to opportunities for success. However, misunderstanding multigenerational idiosyncrasies can also lead to conflict and organizational turmoil.

Generational differences have an extraordinary impact on any workplace – and the fire service is no different. Fire service leaders must seek out and cultivate divergent thought and convergent action to drive the profession forward.

There is no singular leadership style that exists to address all of the idiosyncrasies of multigenerational workforces, and as such, navigating the change, embracing the next generation, and implementing best practices will require strong leadership, proactiveness, adaptability and understanding the social norms and expectations of each.

Works Cited

Dietrich, Karen. "Managing a Changing Workforce." FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin 15 October 2018.

Edwards, Gary Scott. Generational competence and retention: a study of different generations in law enforcement and how these differences impact retention in the Chesterfield County Police Department. Master's Thesis. Richmond: University of Richmond, 2007.

Gausepohl, Shannon. "Tackling 4 Key Challenges of the Multigenerational Workforce." Business News Daily, 26 January 2018.

Hannam, Susan, and Bonni Yordi. Engaging a Multi-Generational Workforce: Practical Advice for Government Managers. Transforming the Workforce Series. Washington D.C.: IBM Center for The Business of Government, 2011.

Purdue University Global. Generational Differences in the Workplace [Infographic]. West Lafayette, n.d.

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