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Ready or Not, Here They Come: The Millennial Generation Enters the Workforce

By James P. Henchey, Captain, Alhambra, California, Police Department

Members of the 102 million-strong millennial generation, those born between 1982 and 2002, have yet to make their full impact on the law enforcement workplace, but they will be the majority of new police officers and deputies hired in the coming decade. By the year 2020, most police officers will be members of the millennial generation. At present, law enforcement has a window of opportunity to properly prepare millennials to progress from new arrivals in the profession to its future leaders.

The Coming Workforce Crisis

According to the Center for Organizational Research, the United States is “rapidly approaching a crisis in its workforce, triggered by the convergence of two demographic trends: the growing number of aging baby boomers in the population and the much smaller number of younger people who follow behind them (generation X).”1 What effect will this dramatic change in the workforce have on government and other public sector jobs? For starters, the workforce will get older: “The proportion of older workers is expected to shoot up an average 4 percent per year between 2000 and 2015. The proportion of younger workers is shrinking. Some sectors are experiencing the impacts of these trends much sooner than others. Government is among those at the leading edge. No sector is feeling the issue’s impacts more forcefully or sooner than government is now.”2

At the center of this crisis is the generational transition currently under way. The ascendant group of workers belongs to generation X, persons born after 1961 and prior to 1982. The projected population of millennials, born between the years of 1982 and 2002, will be 102 million. This total will eclipse the 93 million members of generation X by almost 10 million workers. Although the number of older workers is growing at present, the millennials should eventually reverse that trend.

The Coming Leadership Crisis

In the coming decade, the battle for the most qualified workers available will heat up. According to the Center for Organizational Research, “Given the intensity of talent wars across all sectors, human resource practices and policies have handicapped jurisdictions competing with the private sector for qualified employees.”3 A corollary to this shrinking workforce concern is the resultant leadership crisis, one that will not be solved by sheer numbers.
Recently, executive recruiters have perceived a lack of depth and experience in potential leaders. In October 2002 a former police chief and current principal in a California-based public sector recruitment firm, Gary Brown, wrote, “People who have retired from command positions in other states will fill the void of inadequate numbers of qualified candidates within the state [California].”4 If the law enforcement profession is serious about solving the current leadership crisis, and the crisis that looms in the future, agencies must begin targeting recruitment efforts at the most qualified workers today. Locally recruited leadership candidates should be identified early so that they may be afforded the time to be properly prepared for the police leadership positions of the future.

The leadership crisis confronting organizations today is already affecting executive recruitment in the law enforcement profession. Brown believes “fewer candidates today” are “willing to vie for the position of police chief.” He discovered there were many reasons that good, qualified potential police chief candidates were avoiding the highest rung of their career ladder. Brown concluded that seconds-in-command question the logic of surrendering a well-paid, civil service-protected position for the headaches and stress of the at-will position of a police chief. Brown also posited a concern that police chiefs were not adequately preparing people to succeed them at the top leadership levels of police agencies.5

An analysis of the cause for the paucity of qualified leaders can help us remedy the problem. Planning failures in a couple of areas have contributed to the current leadership predicament in which law enforcement finds itself. First, many organizations have neglected to plan for managerial and executive succession at the agency level. Traditionally, law enforcement has left career planning to the individual. Assumptions are made that there will be succession in leadership to those who aspire to promote. Law enforcement organizations have, for the most part, abdicated the responsibility of leadership skill development to off-site trainers or the individual officer. Brown wrote that “police chiefs have not adequately prepared people to succeed them.”6

Individual police agencies must do a better job of providing structured career development programs for future leaders. Historically, law enforcement organizations focus well on the task of serving their respective communities but tend to neglect internal personnel development needs due to logistical or budgetary reasons. As a result, police organizations risk promoting weak or inexperienced leaders.

Institutional issues are created in instances where weak or inexperienced leaders are promoted. Weak leaders are unable to focus on developing future leaders to succeed them because they are preoccupied with their personal job survival. Inexperienced leaders suffer from lack of exposure and poor mentoring or training. These leaders will be unable to focus on developing new leaders to succeed them as their time will be consumed with their need to learn on the job. This is a cyclic phenomenon. With no strategic plan for succession, weak or inexperienced leaders may continue to be promoted and the development of the next generation of law enforcement leaders would continue to be neglected.

The second planning failure that contributes to the lack of qualified leaders today is that organizations have by and large failed to consider the generational transition of the workforce. In order to ensure the ability to recruit and retain the most promising of the millennials, leaders of law enforcement must begin recognizing how the different attitudes and perceptions of this new generation will affect the workplace. This knowledge will have to translate into action plans and be applied to practical training and development programs to address the needs of the new generation. These challenges will strain law enforcement’s traditional manners of thought and action. Today’s leaders must realize the traditionalist approaches to leadership transition will not prepare law enforcement to attract and retain the millennial generation members who will follow them into the workplace.

About Millennials

Demographic data predicts that the millennial generation will be the largest generational cohort in history, boasting more than 102 million members. The millennial generation comprises Americans born between the years of 1982 and 2002. The label “millennial” was attributed to this group by generational researchers and authors William Strauss and Neil Howe, and this designation was validated by the results of a generational survey conducted by Strauss and Howe in 1999. The survey sampled 655 high school juniors from four public high schools, in the Fairfax County, Virginia, school district. These respondents were going to be the graduating seniors of the Class of 2000. Survey results found that these students preferred the name “millennial generation” to “generation Y.”

Parents of millennials were most often very supportive and protective of them. Educational institutions created character and values-driven curricula to enhance the civility and ethics of millennials. They were constantly reminded of how special they were and, as a result, this group possesses a high degree of self-esteem. In school, trying was given greater weight than actually getting it right. This combination of self-esteem and receiving kudos for effort over accomplishment has manifested itself in this generation’s having a difficult time accepting and applying lessons learned from constructive criticism. Members of the millennial generation reflect a team-orientation and ascribe to the motto “Nobody is left behind.”

Conversely, according to generational researchers, members of generation X, those individuals born between the years of 1961 and 1981, grew up at a time when the world was less welcoming of babies and less concerned for young people. The zero population movement reached a crescendo in the 1960s and helped produce low birth rates for generation X; two-income families led to the proliferation of latchkey kids and institutional day care for generation X children. Many parents were engaged in activities focused on finding themselves, so they had less time to devote to their children. These realities in the generation X life experience have fostered a fierce sense of independence, self-centeredness, and a comfort with being alone. These generational inclinations have handicapped generation X members in their interpersonal communication skills and led to many being labeled as loners. The generation X motto could be “Everyone for himself.”

A similarity worthy of note in this discussion is the comfort and literacy levels shared by both generation X and the millennial generation with regard to computers. Members of generation X grew up during the early development and evolution of the personal computer and the Internet. As a result, this group became familiar and skilled with the technology made available through the use of computers. Millennials have taken this knowledge and increased their computer literacy to levels greater than those of Xers. The preponderant reason for millennials’ collectively greater familiarity and skill with computers is the ubiquitous nature of the technology today. From the time that millennials were born, personal computers were in many homes. As toddlers, millennials played with computer toys. As they entered school, computer labs were found on most school campuses. Notwithstanding this striking similarity, there is also an intriguing difference in how the technology was, and has been, used by the two generations. Xers use the technology such as e-mail and home shopping opportunities as a means to avoid personal contact. Millennials use it toenhance their ability to connect with others, as with chat groups and interactive game playing.

Understanding the Workforce Transition

Presently, the American society contains individual members of six generations: the lost generation (born 1883-1900); the GI generation, also known as the greatest generation (1901-1924); the silent generation (1925-1942); the baby boom generation (1943-1960); generation X, also known as the 13ers or the echo boom generation (1961-1981); and the millennial generation, also known as generation Y (1982-2002). Although demographic models do vary by time frames, the cited years were developed by Howe and Strauss in their book Millennials Rising. The current American workforce is composed mainly of members of the baby boom generation, generation X, and the millennial generation. A relatively small number of silent generation members are still active in the workplace.

The members of the baby boom generation have retired or are rapidly approaching retirement age. In the law enforcement workforce, younger baby boomers are within five years of qualifying for the new retirement age of 50 in California. Presently, generation X members make up the bulk of those in policing. This reality was reinforced in a 2004 survey of members of the Alhambra, Fresno, and Santa Monica Police Departments in California. Of the 181 sworn officers queried, almost 68 percent were members of generation X; less than 5 percent were millennials.

Generation X members currently occupy the majority of positions in this profession. The current impact of the millennial generation is negligible; however, since they are just emerging into the workforce, their impact on the law enforcement workplace will begin to be more fully felt in the coming decade.

The inevitable reality for public safety is that the mantle of leadership must transfer to the members of each new generation as they come of age. The millennials’ career choices will be influenced by the planning and actions of today’s leaders. To gain an adequate segment of the qualified workforce, policing must be attractive to millennials and convince them that law enforcement is their best choice for a meaningful and important career.

The millennial generation is dramatically dissimilar from generation X in terms of optimism, interpersonal abilities, and respect for authority. There are, however, similarities that exist between the two groups. They are both reputed as technoliterate and skilled at multitasking.8 Technoliteracy is the highly refined level of understanding and skill in manipulating the various technologies present in today’s workplace. Beyond the areas where the generational attitudes and skills intersect, understanding the generational differences in characteristics and attitudes will be crucial for the generation X peers, supervisors, and managers who will be training and mentoring members of the millennial generation in the future.

Potential Futures

Researchers at the University of North Carolina–Charlotte (UNCC) in 2004 investigated the values orientation of criminal justice students. They concluded that “the differences between those criminal justice students who are specifically interested in law enforcement and other criminal justice majors as well as nonmajors seem to support higher ethical standards among law enforcement students.”9 According to the researchers, “Criminal justice students interested in law enforcement received the highest mean scores on the trustworthiness scale, the lowest mean scores on the likelihood to engage in unethical acts, and the highest mean scores on the rating of the seriousness of police unethical behavior. It is the researchers’ personal experience that most criminal justice majors who state they are interested in law enforcement specifically appear to have made that career decision early in their education and understand the values and standards necessary to work in law enforcement.”10

The ramifications of the UNCC study are significant. The population this research project specifically sampled comprised primarily members of the millennial generation. The results of the study uphold predictions that the millennial generation will be an ethical and hardworking group. Moreover, the results show a trend consistent with the ethical standards of policing. This bodes well for the future reputation of the law enforcement profession and those who will choose it as a career.

Authors Gwendolyn Hubbard, Robert Cromwell, and Tony Sgro, in their article published in the October 2004 issue of the Police Chief, sensed a future trend that could prove exciting for law enforcement. They wrote, “The exciting news is that generation Y [millennials’] behaviors and career choices are driven first and foremost by their quest for opportunities to play important roles in meaningful work that helps others. This is perhaps the most socially conscious generation since the 1960s and they are exhibiting strong signs of altruism already.”11 This analysis of observed behavioral patterns displayed by the millennial generation speaks very well of the proposition that law enforcement will not suffer a lack of applicants to fill entry-level positions. Above all, the law enforcement profession and public safety have been viewed by generations in history as meaningful work that makes a difference in people’s lives.

In terms of future gender issues as they relate to leadership in policing, a prediction expressed by generational researchers Neil Howe and William Strauss could provide a bellwether for the profession. Howe and Strauss wrote, “Women will win rising shares of leadership positions, academic honors, and graduate admissions. At the same time, men will feel less at home on campus, male dropout rates will rise, and gender-studies programs will come under student attack. How to bring young men back into higher education will become recognized as a national problem.”12

The implication of this statement redounds to the issue of education and the role of formal education in the preparation of law enforcement’s leaders of the future. If this projection proves true, a proportionately greater number of women in law enforcement will possess the necessary educational prerequisites for leadership than men. From this prediction, women leaders will become increasingly prevalent in the profession.

A prediction from the World Future Society (WFS) presents a more ominous scenario for public sector employees. In a special report called “50 Trends Shaping the Future,” the WFS notes of members of generation X and the millennial generation that “twice as many say they would prefer to own a business rather than be a top executive. Five times more would prefer to own a business than hold a key position in politics or government.”13 Millennials who responded to the WFS researchers could be concluding that government is too process-oriented to allow for creative and entrepreneurial people to thrive. Millennials will want to make a difference. Their results orientation means that they may not have the patience for red tape and checks and balances.

Recruiting and Training Millennials for Leadership

In 2004 the leading edge of the millennial generation turned 22 years old. Members of this generation are graduating from colleges and presenting themselves to potential employers. The millennials bring a set of characteristics, qualities, and attitudes that could potentially make it a generation of workers that will be coveted among employers. The fact that the millennial generation will outnumber Xers by almost 10 million members illustrates there will most likely be enough workers to fill the needs of employers. The challenge for law enforcement will be to highlight those aspects of the profession that appeal to the millennial profile in recruitment efforts conducted with the goal to attract and retain the best of this generation.

On balance, few, if any, law enforcement agencies have implemented comprehensive formal succession planning strategies to address the future need for leaders and managers. In his 2002 article on the subject of police chief recruitment, Brown articulated that law enforcement was already behind the curve insofar as planning for succession in leadership is concerned.14 Many factors have contributed to the present erosion of the management and leadership ranks in law enforcement. In California, the “3 percent at 50” retirement option for police—which allows officers who are at least 50 years of age to retire after 30 years of service and receive 90 percent of their pay (3 percent for each year of service)—has begun to strip law enforcement of its senior leaders and the attendant experience and knowledge that they carry with them. This exodus of some of law enforcement’s promising future leaders and current seconds-in-command creates problems beyond the shrinking of the candidate pool. These leaders are the mentors and teachers of the professionals in agencies across the state who are in the development stages of their leadership careers. They will set the standard and establish the environment that can persuade members of the millennial generation to choose the law enforcement profession and remain in it for their entire working lives. The removal of this human resource from the profession will likely prove deleterious to an organization’s ability to produce competent leaders for the future. Policing should find ways to convince the best of the retiring leaders to remain involved in the development of the leadership skill set for millennials. One technique would be to coax these leaders into voluntary or paid consultant positions as part of the training and mentoring programs created to evolve millennial leaders; the profession will greatly benefit from their collective expertise.

Threats to Recruitment and Retention of Millennials

There are other, less obvious threats confronting law enforcement as it grapples with the generational transition. Four significant trends are potential threats to the implementation of substantive, and successful, generational succession planning programs.

Cynicism: is the continual finding of fault in people and their actions, including the expression of suspicion or distrust in human nature and motives. With our understanding that the predictions of researchers are not absolute, there should be an equal sense that the documented predictions about millennials do not ensure the expected positive outcome for this young generation. The millennial generation is composed of human beings and, as such, they are subject to the variable influences exerted by genetics, environment, and other factors. Prognostications of generational scholars could be unrealized due to the exercise of these variables on individual millennials. The effects that cynicism and cynical attitudes can have on the millennial generation will manifest in the subversion of this generation’s very positive potential for the future.

The threat posed by cynicism is found in law enforcement as a whole, as well as the human beings whose influence is guiding millennials today. Parents, teachers, mentors, coworkers, and supervisors with predominantly critical attitudes can have a lasting effect on the members of this generation. Pessimism and a constant wave of negative criticism about members of this generation will raise mistrust and stifle their natural predisposition towards optimism, which is, so far, a defining characteristic of this generation. The effect could be to cripple their generational can-do mentality and harm their progression to leadership positions in all areas.

Media Influence: Av Westin, a former ABC News vice president for program development and author of a manual on journalistic practices and ethics, said, “‘If it bleeds, it leads’ is an accurate description of many news judgments in local TV markets. Reporters and producers look for just those kinds of stories to inject excitement into the show.”15 In Westin’s words, “Competitive pressures that raise the demand for sensational video have led to staging in which both perspective is lost and truth is stretched, resulting in a violation of basic journalistic ethics.”16 This media tendency brings forward a more unsavory and pessimistic slant to events occurring in the world. The threat herein is when the media paints a cynical and unattractive picture of the law enforcement profession. Millennials are technologically and electronically connected and may be especially aware of these reports. There is no doubt that sometimes law enforcement deserves to be criticized for its actions. Nonetheless, positive stories about law enforcement are often offset by many more stories that dwell on how dangerous, difficult, and thankless the career can be. If the millennial generation accepts the mainstream media viewpoint without balance, this drumbeat of information will, invariably, reduce millennials’ interest in law enforcement. The uncontested misrepresentations of law enforcement by the media could eventually increase the recruitment challenges for agencies in the future.

Linearism: Linearism, also known as linear thinking, is the viewpoint that time proceeds in a purposeful and inexorable manner, always forward into the future. It is a never-repeating process of events and occurrences: “Each act is original, granting a sense of authentic creativity unknown to those who reenact the past.”17 Linear thinking is a threat facing the profession in that it could have a deterrent effect on the development of the millennial generation of officers. Howe and Strauss observed, “Yet the biggest obstacle now blocking a better adult appreciation of millennials is one that today’s adult generations did not face in their own youth. It is the obstacle that derives from straight-line thinking, from a near-universal adult consensus that, since the last two generations have defined a negative youth trend, the next American generation must necessarily follow that path.”18 Generations of people whose collective mindset is oriented in this linear frame of reference disdain the cyclic rhythm of generations down through history. They do not believe that history can teach us lessons about the future and the members of future generations. The trainers and mentors of millennial police officers, constituents of generation X and the baby boom generation, could defeat strategies deployed by law enforcement to address the development of millennials. The reticence of trainers and mentors to believe in the potential of millennials could be the result of this linear thinking. This reluctance is dismissive of millennials’ collective abilities. The dampening effect on this group of potential police leaders could work to negate the promise that generational researchers have predicted for this cohort. Further, it could divert millennials altogether from seeking, selecting, and sustaining a law enforcement career.

Law Enforcement Tradition: Some experts argue that millennials will have an appreciation for traditions. Nonetheless, the intractability of law enforcement traditionalist and bureaucratic thought will controvert millennial police officers’ preference for sensible structures and policies in their respective workplaces. Streamlining or revising outdated policies and procedures can address this concern. The threat that blind adherence to tradition presents could result in millennials’ pursuit of other professions in their desire to find honorable and respectable work. Entrepreneurial and adaptable careers will be sought. If law enforcement is not viewed as such a choice, the profession will be unable to effectively attract and retain the best of the millennial generation for leadership positions in the future.

Implications for the Future

The staffing shortages that prevail in today’s law enforcement workplace will probably fade into the past once the full force of the millennial generation’s numbers is felt in the workplace. This does not mean the leadership crisis in public and private sector organizations will go away without action to develop the leaders of tomorrow. Millennial workers will seek opportunities for their personal future, fueled by their generational predispositions. By heeding predictions of experts in the field, leaders of today may jump ahead of the curve and prepare for the millennials’ leadership needs of tomorrow.

Portents of future workforce trends should be seriously considered by those in policing who have the authority to address this transition. While these forecasts have great value in guiding preparations for the generational transition, they come with no guarantees. Rather, this information provides potential futures that proactive administrators and leaders can choose to contemplate as they position their respective organizations for the future. Many variables, human or environmental, could change the direction or existence of a predicted trend or impact the realization of forecast generational attitudes and characteristics. Nevertheless, preparations for the possibilities that could take place as generations transition will be critical to the future of law enforcement leadership at the local, state, and federal levels.

The millennials’ transition into the law enforcement workplace is currently under way. The window of opportunity to recruit the best of the millennials is open now. They may be attracted to public safety because of the reputation of the profession but will only stay if the relationships they seek exist in the workplace. Mentoring relationships will be important to the development of millennial leaders and a critical element in any generational succession plan. Researchers have emphasized this characteristic of the millennial generation: “They will always need the wisdom of older, seasoned mentors. And they crave the guidance of knowledgeable, confident managers and coworkers. But they also want to be appreciated. . . . They want their ideas to be heard by expert listeners who don’t outright discount [generation] Yers simply because they’re young.”19 Agencies employing the services of respected and revered retired leaders could be a well received and economical strategy in the effort to prepare future millennial leaders.

The past has shown that law enforcement has left the development of future leaders to an amalgamated process of individual interest, unaffiliated trainers, and chance. This recipe contributed to today’s crisis of leadership. This crisis will endure if the profession does not sense the urgency and act soon to prevent history from repeating itself. “When history loses urgency, people tend to live at the expense of the future despite their better judgment.”20 The foresight of today’s leaders, and the persistence of tomorrow’s, will create the fertile and nurturing environment in which millennial leaders will grow and prosper. If the lessons of history are well learned, then the millennial generation will be the vanguards of a golden era of professional law enforcement leadership.

1 Center for Organizational Research (Linkage Inc), “The Aging and Retiring Government Workforce: How Serious Is the Challenge? What Are Jurisdictions Doing about It?,” by Mary B. Young (2003), 3.
2 Center for Organizational Research, “The Aging and Retiring Government Workforce,” 3.
3 Center for Organizational Research, “The Aging and Retiring Government Workforce,” 16.
4 Gary Brown, “Who Is Going to Fill Their Shoes? A Perspective on the Recruitment of Police Chiefs,” Journal of California Law Enforcement, vol. 37, no. 3 (2002): 14.
5 Brown, “Who Is Going to Fill Their Shoes?”: 13.
6 Brown, “Who Is Going to Fill Their Shoes?”: 13.
7 Neil Howe and William Strauss, Millennials Rising (New York: Vintage, 2000), 414.
8 Ron Zemke, Claire Raines, and Bob Filipczak, Generations at Work (New York: Amacon, 2000), 110.
9 Beth Bjerregaard and Vivian B. Lord, “An Examination of the Ethical and Value Orientation of Criminal Justice Students,” Police Quarterly, vol. 7, no. 2 (June 2004): 275.
10 Bjerregaard and Lord, “An Examination of the Ethical and Value Orientation,” 276.
11 Gwendolyn Hubbard, Robert K. Cromwell, and Tony Sgro, “Mission Possible: Creating a New Face for the FBI,” The Police Chief (October 2004): 44.
12 Howe and Strauss, Millennials Rising, 312.
13 World Future Society, “50 Trends Shaping the Future,” by Marvin J. Cetron and Owen Davies (Bethesda, Md.: 2003), 26.
14 Brown, “Who Is Going to Fill Their Shoes?,”15.
15 Freedom Forum, “The Best Practices for Television Journalists,” by Av Westin (Nashville, Tenn.: 2000), 64; ( BestPractices.Westin.pdf#search=’freedom%20forum%20westin).
16 Freedom Forum, “The Best Practices for Television Journalists,” 47.
17 Neil Howe and William Strauss, The Fourth Turning (New York: Broadway Books, 1997), 11.
18 Howe and Strauss, Millennials Rising, 25.
19 Carolyn A. Martin and Bruce Tulgan, Managing Generation Y (Amherst, Mass.: HRD Press, 2001), 24.
20 William Strauss and Neil Howe, Generations (New York: Morrow, 1991), 38.

Editor’s note: Generation years vary slightly from one demographic model to the next. The demographic model used by the author was compiled from various sources, including Millennials Rising and Generations at Work.


From The Police Chief, vol. 72, no. 9, September 2005. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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