shopify analytics


Together we are stronger

What are the differences between the four generations in today's public safety workforce?

05 Apr 2017 6:30 AM | International Public Safety Association (Administrator)

By Dr. Jim DeLung

Generational research has an abundant footprint on classic and contemporary literature. A generation is defined as a group of people who have similar life experiences concurrently developed due to historical events (Mannheim, 1936; Massey, 2006). These similar life experiences affect an individual’s worldview both personally and professionally. Individual anomalies may exist within a generation, but this research focused on generational commonalities. Members of a generational cohort are generally bound together by historical world events that create a context for life, and this context appears to be carried and replicated through life.

Derived from private sector research

The private sector has more generational literature than the public sector, and policing has nearly none.  This research combined generational literature of private industries with many civilian public sectors to include military and correctional references similar to policing.  Generational divides appear to exist in all American workplaces, yet policing is different because of its culture (Cappitelli, 2014).

The four generations

The four major generations currently in the American public safety workforce include:

  1. Traditionalists, born prior to 1946.
  2. Baby Boomers, born 1946-1964
  3. Generation X, born 1965-1979
  4. Generation Y or Millennials, born after 1980. 

Often the literature has slightly differing demarcations for the generational cohorts, but the above dates are generally accepted (Cogin, 2012; Kaifi, Nafei, Khanfar, & Kaifi, 2012; and Lester, Standifer, Schultz, & Windsor, 2012). 

Generational diversity in the workplace is not a new subject, but it has become a highly-investigated topic in contemporary peer-reviewed and popular media literature (Lancaster & Stillman, 2010). 

Beliefs and values

Each generation possesses and exhibits unique beliefs and values in the workplace developed from their shared life experiences (Lester et al., 2012) through the history of the time. These unique beliefs and values may positively or negatively affect the workplace through lack of understanding or communication.  It is clear that the literature on generational differences is growing, but it is unclear if generational differences and characteristics are identifiable and generalizable across a single or multiple work industries.

Expectations and motivators

Literature suggests distinctive expectations and motivators exist amongst each of the diverse generations: (a) Traditionalists, (b) Baby Boomers, (c) Generation X, and (d) Millennials. Organizational decision-makers would benefit by identifying genuine generational differences through research data rather than relying on popular media literature. A legitimate research study might assist in identifying generational characteristics that organizational leaders could utilize for hiring, satisfaction and retention.

Each generation exhibits unique strengths and weaknesses in the American public safety workforce.

What influences these generations?

Members of each generation are subjected and influenced by cultural, societal and family events that occurred during their formative years. The formative years are generally accepted across the literature as pre-teen through teenage years of life (Massey, 2006). 

As individuals develop through their formative years, various historical events impact each generation differently and are displayed open or latently for a lifetime. These historical events are what usually bind an individual to a particular generational cohort.

Generational anomalies, cuspers

Again, anomalies may exist due to life events that differ from the general generational population. For example, generational cuspers may not fall in line with the norms and characteristics of a single generation. Individuals born somewhere near the widely-debated birth-year demarcations or within a few years of the generational split are known as cuspers. 

Cuspers sometimes have the ability to move between two different generational cohorts due to the historical events that bind cuspers during their formative years. But, these individuals usually identify with the generation that most closely fits their underlying values and lifestyle characteristics (Hammill, 2005) identified throughout their lifetime.

Traditionalists, born prior to 1946

Members of the Traditionalist Generation are usually defined by the Great Depression. These individuals grew up in an era of great economic hardships and self-sacrifice. Their core values are usually a life sacrificed to an employer and conformity to the general society. Traditionalists are described as patient, loyal and they put work before play (Clare, 2009).

Cates (2010) stated traditionalists represent over 59 million of the present-day employees in the workplace. They want to continue to make a difference in their organizations through challenging and stimulating work. Professional growth and learning for Traditionalists comes through hands on experiences, and they appear to have difficulty with the fast paced changes in technology.  Literature reveals that Traditionalists actually have a positive view of technology, but they may require more training (Cates, 2010) due to their unfamiliarity with the new and often changing technologies.

Traditionalists work well with Millennials

Emelo (2011) suggested members of the Traditionalist generational cohort appear to work well with patient Millennial mentors. Millennials appear to focus on their relationships with thus older generation as they explore technologies such as social networking with them. Matching Millennials with Traditionalists in law enforcement may have an immediate positive organizational impact.

Characteristics of Traditionalists

Traditionalist public safety employees often exude extreme loyalty, self-discipline and organizational knowledge (Cekada, 2012) to their superiors. Many in this generational cohort have retired from the workplace, but continue to value a working lifestyle through volunteer of part-time employment.  The apparent diversity of blending Traditionalists with Millennial employees in the workplace could cause collaboration and conflict which required further research through this study.

Baby Boomers, born 1946-1964

In contrast to the Traditionalist Generation, individuals from the Baby Boomer Generation generally grew up with drastically changing economic and political events (Dittman, 2005, as cited in Cates, 2010). 

For example, the formative years for a Baby Boomer likely experienced the Vietnam War, Martin Luther King, Jr. and John F. Kennedy assassinations, as well as Watergate, increased feminism, and Woodstock (Howe & Strauss, 2007). 

Baby Boomer work ethic

Baby Boomer family units also moved from urban to suburban areas into homes, and for the first time families owned multiple cars. Raised by strong work-ethic parents, the almost 80 million Baby Boomers entered the workforce at a furious pace like never before in American history. To get ahead in the workforce, this competitive, hard-working generation started to work more than the standard 40 hours per week. Current literature exists with varying opinions about the positive or negative impacts of the increased work hours (Cekada, 2012) introduced and maintained by members of the Baby Boomer generational cohort.

Today, over 76 million Baby Boomers still occupy the American workplace, and they are often found in positions of higher authority in organizations due to workplace experience and seniority. They often define work ethic as long hours and face-time. This Baby Boomer approach to vocation and their definition of work ethic are displayed in both management and followership styles (Cates, 2010). 

Therefore, Baby Boomers are less likely to push against their superiors while spending long hours at work and away from their families.

Baby Boomers and organizational culture

Baby Boomers have created an organizational cultural value in the number of hours a person spends working as well as the amount of money paid for working (Cates, 2010). This face-time, butt-in-seat, at the workplace, organizational institutionalization is respected and desired by Baby Boomers, but not Millennials. 

Baby Boomers often contrast with Millennials

Many Baby Boomer organizational leaders complain about Millennials who do not fit the company mold, yet they themselves created them as their own children (Scheef & Thielfoldt, 2004 as cited in Cekada, 2012). This workplace leadership incongruence can often conflict with the workplace behavior and acceptance of the younger Millennial Generation employees (Simons, 2010).

Generation X, born 1965-1979

The work-driven, many-hours working environment implemented by Traditionalists and Baby Boomers developed the unique members of Generation X through a pseudo-rebellion against the long work hours away from the family. As a result, Gen X members became independent and adaptable employees who saw their parents’ loyalty to employers rewarded with layoffs and considerable cutbacks (Cekada, 2012). 

The increase of divorce and moms going to work evolved into latchkey kids who helped raise their siblings autonomously. These negative formative years experiences translated into the current informal, self-reliant Generation X employees and bosses (Hammill, 2005 as cited in Cates, 2010).

Gen Xers work environment

The constant need for independence in the workplace, and the dislike of micromanagement comes as a result of their lonely albeit autonomous upbringing. Gen Xers prefer to receive and give feedback immediately in an informal manner. Work must be fun, loosely structured and combined with many opportunities for personal and professional growth (Cates, 2010).

Career options are usually viewed as open to Generation Xers who watched their parents’ reduction in force and layoff in the 1980s. They may prepare for their opportunistic departure from an employer due to an economic downturn as a defense to their parents’ negative experiences during the Generation X formative years (Cekada, 2012). 

A Generation Xer will often have an eye on a few new job opportunities or even an entirely new industry ready to go at a moment’s notice.

Gen Xers, opportunism and Millennials

Members of Generation X take their employment status seriously, but they are continuously building their personal resumes in preparation for lateral or external opportunities (Simons, 2010).  This behavior may be a result of trying to obtain employment that allows the Generation Xer to maximize time spent with their families. 

Twenge (2010) stated in cross sectional data from the Families and Work Institute, 52% of Generation X was family centric as compared to the 40% of Baby Boomers. This may suggest some of the current conflict between work, life, and family balance Generation X experiences in the workplace with their Baby Boomers supervisors.

These Generation X workplace satisfiers may also be in conflict with the Millennials, and is further discussed in this research study.

Millennials (Generation Y), born after 1980

The literature commonly identifies the latest generation in the workplace to be the most diverse. More specifically, Millennials are identified by their unique dress, body piercings, tattoos and constant electronic connectivity (Cogin, 2012) rather than just race and gender. 

As a generation who was constantly showered with attention and praise, Millennials are often described from confident to arrogant (Cekada, 2012). Alsop (2008) referred to the Millennial Generation as self-absorbed trophy kids who aspire to be financially successful, with strong global/environmental and socially-responsible consciousness.

Conflict that seems to work

Millennials are uniquely different because their own goals and desires seem to conflict while interestingly working well together. For instance, Alsop (2008) also described how contemporary popular and research literature often depict Millennials as narcissistic and egocentric, furthermore they are described as the most philanthropic generation in history as reported by the Pew Research Center (Taylor & Keeter, 2010). Maybe these contrasting behaviors and beliefs are why Twenge (2006) described today’s youngest Americans as confident, assertive, entitled and more miserable than ever before.

Millennials in the workplace

Incongruent behavior internal to the Millennial Generation is also described by Alsop (2008) because Millennials desire strong supervision and direction in the workplace, but demand the flexibility to complete tasks on their own terms. 

Lancaster and Stillman (2010) further described the Millennial Generation as the most difficult generation to work with as reported by the Baby Boomers and Generation Xers interviewed, but further qualitative research is required to identify the root cause of this legitimate or perceived revelation.

According to a Pew Research Center report (Taylor & Keeter, 2010), the Millennials identify their generational uniqueness through technology, music/pop culture, liberalism/tolerance, intelligence and clothing. 

Values listed by the other three generations in the workplace included items such as honesty, work ethic and respect/morals. 

Without this deeper investigation and research directly from Millennials, it could be too easy to conclude their uniqueness would greatly contrast with the other generations in the workplace (Bristow, 2009; Crumpacker & Crumpacker, 2007).

Related Articles

What you need to know about the recruitment, satisfaction and retention of Millennial-aged police officers

Workplace satisfaction for millennial-aged public safety employees

About the Author 

Author: "Hellofa motivator!" - Dr. Jim DeLung is currently serving with pride as the CEO of DeLung International at, a professional leadership and organizational development firm. As a successful private entrepreneur and public-sector leader, Dr. DeLung utilizes his education and experience for effective leadership and inspiration to organizations through interactive, adult-oriented training programs. More information available at

Copyright 2021. International Public Safety Association, a 501(c)3 non-profit. Contact us.

Powered by Wild Apricot Membership Software