Misunderstanding Military Millennials

by Christopher Manganaro

Millennials have received a bad rap. The press and others believe millennials want something for nothing and have no work ethic. This myth has led many to believe that they cannot take criticism or lack the intestinal fortitude to serve in the Army. Like many generations before them, each have come with their own quirks and nuances. The Army magnifies these quirks, and unless properly identified and actioned, we risk dismissing the very leaders we are training to replace us one day.


U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Eric J. Radtke, a rifleman, scans the area outside of an objective during Exercise Hamel at Cultana Training Area, South Australia, Australia, July 7, 2016. Radtke, from Oak Creek, Wisconsin, is with Company C, 1st Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, Marine Rotational Force – Darwin. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Osvaldo L. Ortega III)

Identifying Millennials

The actual timeframe for when the millennial generation is widely debated and by no means standardized. Most things associated with millennials will not conform to a standard and that is okay. Just because they don’t think or act like you is no reason to shove them into a corner or push them out of the Army. As an all-volunteer Army fighting the longest wars to date in Afghanistan and Iraq, we cannot afford to dismiss an entire generation of leaders because they don’t think like us.

Here are 10 characteristics of military millennials that leaders need to understand as they engage and lead them:

  1. They are mostly in the rank window of E5-E6 and O2-O3.
  2. They joined the military after 9/11 and see the world through a lens that includes terrorism.
  3. They are the most technologically connected, but least socially communal group of people.
  4. Millennials understand that Russia and China are known for their recent Olympic games, not for being a “threat” we need to train to fight against.
  5. They are typically not interested in staying at one job for too long.
  6. They find it highly unlikely we will engage in another ground war similar to Desert Storm and more accepting of the type of war found in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
  7. They’re stuck between “being ready” for the next war and finding purpose in their everyday actions.
  8. Millennials have lived the predictable life of the “patch chart,” which helped families, friends and civilian employers, for Reserve and National Guard Soldiers, prepare and ramp up for combat.
  9. They find it hard to believe we are not doing more about Syria, ISIS or other transnational threats that we see every day on TV and the Internet.
  10. They do better knowing the “why” behind things and receiving accolades from their supervisors.

“But Why?”

The most misunderstood characteristic of millennials is the question they commonly ask, “Why?”  The word why can cause Generation X leaders to leap out of their chairs and harken back to the days when you didn’t ask that question and just did as you were told.

The military millennial is not trying to sound disrespectful, but rather gain a deeper understanding by discovering the root cause for the action. And not everything has to come with a “Why?”

Taking a hill, returning fire against an enemy ambush, are both examples of actions that don’t require subordinate buy-in and discussion. The problem arises when leaders treat every action as a “take the hill” moment and don’t allow the millennial junior leader the ability to provide their input or inquire why the specific action needs to be done a certain way. Remember, these leaders grew up in the counterinsurgency conflicts of Iraq and Afghanistan and a simple action like “disarm the local militia” is extremely complex and requires constructive thinking. Asking “Why?” aides them in building their approach.

Generation Xer’s can shorten the gap between themselves and the millennials through an enhanced leader development program. Ditch the slide presentations and Gettysburg “staff rides” in favor of watching TED Talks, blog reading and publishing, and most importantly, sharing meals and experiences together. Here are some more ideas.

Millennials are well connected and grew up with technology. They thrive on using tools and resources they can access from their computers and smart phones. They also yearn to be brought out of their “comfort zone” through personal engagement sessions that break the barriers between generations.

Millennials are the future of the Army. Their characteristics make them who they are, and also shape the decisions and career paths they take. Stop defaulting to “let me tell you how the Army was before 9/11” or even worse “we need to go back to basics.” You will only alienate the generation that will one day replace you.

Questions for Leaders

  • To what extend are you willing to leave your own generational perspective in order to understand that of your subordinates?
  • In what situations could you give a Why but instead rely on rank or position to reinforce your guidance?
  • Is connecting with your followers important enough to try to understand their generationally influenced attitudes, biases, and ways of thinking?

For a fantastic podcast episode on leading millennials, check out EntreLeadership’s Leading the Next Generation.

Christopher Manganaro is an Army Officer who has served at the tactical, operational and strategic levels of the military. He believes that leader development and mentoring the next generation of leaders are paramount to our military’s success at current and future conflicts.

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  • jackthecat2010

    “… the generation that will one day replace you.” The last part of that statement is so true for each generation of service members, no matter the branch. From day one, usually without explaining to the trainees in Basic, leaders are training future soldiers of all branches to be the “next” leader…of course they don’t see it that way at the time. I left the Army seven years ago, after serving for 25 years…hopefully the leaders of today will remember me in a good way. I always emphasized that one day, you soldiers sitting in those seats WILL replace me!…of course they did. Good article.

  • Gabriel Hearn

    I hate being grouped as a millennial almost as much as I like to ask why, at the right time and reason. The problem is the army has always been a broad spectrum of people and backgrounds leading to ever changing ideas on how to improve from tactics to the most god awful to speculate on: leadership. Combined with that I feel is also the misconceived combination of the society generation changes and the military side of the post 9/11 GWOT born soldiers. Of course my mindset is different than someone who spent time in the 90s army training to kick some commie ass. I grew up wanting to join the military since watching the towers burn. It wasn’t that the middle east had become a new face of evil to me, I was too young to see that like the teenagers graduating and joining at that time. I instead grew up watching them return eagerly awaiting my turn to go. Dealing with family with ptsd, watching family friends struggle with monsters I couldn’t see. I saw what war does to people, I saw brotherhood, and I saw what the effects of good and bad leadership does to a band of brothers. That’s my fire in joining and I know there’s many my age in the same boat. But we are separate from those talked about in this article, however we are most commonly considered as such. There’s always that one senior leader that just has that attitude of these kids are high and mighty attitude holding sniffling snots that can’t show respect or use technology right. Leadership is complicated. The best advice comes from the led. Advice on how to be a good boss or manager comes from peers or superiors. The difference is motivation. I ask why because I can’t just follow something I have no idea how to accomplish to most intimate detail. I have no fear of helping find a better solution in any way possible. I want the details because I want to contribute to success. Many thing don’t require why, but many do benefit by the who what where when and WHY. It’s not an insult to authority, it’s a quality that should be appreciated.
    Just my illiterate thoughts.

    • Gabriel, I appreciate your response and think it’s a needed one in the face of people who are willing to generalize without analysis or specificity. Would you consider crafting your thoughts into a response post to publish on the site? I’d be happy to work on it with you. Email me if you are interested – admin@themilitaryleader.com. Thank you for your perspective!

      • Gabriel Hearn

        I appreciate it, and am honored with the offer. Can’t say I’ve written anything since the early days of high school. However I am pretty stretched thin at the moment and my formal writing skills are garbage.

  • Brett J. Patron

    They don’t buy into principle, tradition, or shibboleths. (at least not intuitively).

    I think they are ok with “teamwork” but they don’t seem to buy into “teams” as much. (Hence to the appeal of pretentiousness like TedTalks). My perception is that they are highly individualized and have no problem walking away from a team when the going gets tough.

  • Brett J. Patron

    They have to be told “Why” because they don’t have the background to know why.

    The problem is that you have to tell them “why” in a way that they can “accept”. “Duty” “Honor” and other principles are either not compelling or not comprehended.

  • MstrSgt

    One of my former battalion commanders, now a retired, Lt. Gen. Martin R Steele, made similar comments about telling Marines ‘why’ they were ordered to do things when he was the commander of 1st Tank Battalion at Camp Pendleton. In 1987-1988 if I remember correctly. I remember thinking we should always give a why if we had time, so the Marines could make better decisions as the situation changed. He was way ahead of his time.

    • That’s great advice – concur wholeheartedly. The Why is really the essence of mission command, communicates so much more that is needed for execution. Thanks for commenting!