Progressing inter-generational dialogue in security

Credit: Unsplash - Jason Rosewell

By Codee Ludbey 

Speaking at Safeguarding Australia this year, I raised some of the generational issues facing the workforce today, and outlined some misconceptions. Importantly, over the two days, several discussions about Millennials in the workforce, the future of security, and the state of the industry occurred in the sidelines. With representatives from across the national security, emergency management, law enforcement, and corporate security community, the opportunity to inject some new ideas and stir debate was integral to starting a much broader and deeper conversation.

In this post, I want to outline some thoughts and ideas developed for and during Safeguarding, and hopefully spark some discussion. Deepening the discourse on the generational divide in security is intricately linked with the future of this industry and needs more attention.

Loyalty and the Workplace

A common criticism of my generation is their loyalty. There is a perception that we move jobs with little regard for our employers, chasing status, salary, and prestige. Unsurprisingly, there seems to be an attitude of ‘why bother’ when the conversation turns to training and developing young staff; why waste time, money, and resources only for that expenditure to disappear and work for a competitor?

This seems to be the perennial problem in hiring and training staff; no matter their age. There is always a risk that staff will leave – but is there a greater likelihood of this risk being realised in younger staff? I would argue that this problem is not a new one, and that the rate of staff retention among Millennials is not substantially different from previous generations when they were of the same age.

In review of the data, Millennials, born between 1981 and 1998 have a slightly higher tenure rate than Generation X when comparing both generations between the ages 18 and 33. Further, the median tenure levels for wage and salary workers (ages 20 or older) in 1983 was six years in a role, in 2016 it is was 7.1 years – a significant increase. Even more surprisingly, the median tenure of males aged 25-34 in 1951 was 2.8 years, and in 2010 it was 3.2 years. Females of the same age bracket in 1951 had a median tenure of 1.8 years, and in 2010 a median tenure of three years.

This information, provided by the Pew Research Centre, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the Employee Benefit Research Institute indicates that the common perception of Millennials being less loyal than previous generations may not be as true as initially thought. In fact, the data tends to indicate that we are more loyal than previous generations, and remain with an employer for longer than both Baby Boomers and Generation X did in their younger years.

More importantly however, the data shows that historically workers of all generations have repeatedly changed jobs during their working careers, and all evidence suggests that they will continue to do so in the future. Consequently, I find it hard to agree that my generation is a special case for employers when it comes to staff retention; perhaps it is the individual organisation’s ability to instil a lasting sense of loyalty that is the problem.

Credit: Unsplash – Glenn Carstens-Peters

Inflated Expectations

Another common criticism of Millennials is that we lack common sense, an inability to work hard, or to operate at a level appropriate for the roles we are given. We are often criticised for expecting too much, and being too arrogant in our own sense of worth to an organisation or role.

I would argue that these criticisms could be laid on any generation; youthful arrogance is not a new phenomenon. While I won’t make excuses for this behaviour, I think the only way to approach this particular problem is through patience, and a commitment to grounding expectations within the workplace. Employees are connected more than ever before, but I feel the superior-subordinate relationship can at times be more strained than in previous generations. The best way to ground employees is through a constant conversation and a series of reality checks; build the relationship with your younger workers, and re-orient their expectations with reality.

The Most Educated Generation in History

By almost every statistical measure, my generation is now the most educated in human history. This statement is commonly taken as an affront and insult, but make no mistake, we are not claiming to be more intelligent than you, nor more capable. I strongly believe that the media and personalities clashing over generational worth are wilfully misinterpreting this statistic to further their own following. Education does not imply competence, experience, or capability. Education implies potential, reasoned thought, and future capability in younger individuals.

Perhaps we need to change our perspective: my generation has more latent potential than any other generation in human history. We need the older generations to contextualise our education, and help us develop the real world skills needed to effectively apply our knowledge. Parchment doesn’t make up for experience, however it does provide a jumping off point for a more structured and rational approach to thinking. I urge security professionals of all backgrounds to temper our formal education with real world experience and knowledge, but listen if we come up with new ideas or have a different perspective.

Tapping Latent Potential

Having re-framed the discussion to establish that there exists a significant amount of potential lying dormant in my generation, the question becomes how do employers tap this potential, and how do we keep Millennials engaged? The approach needs to be holistic, with investment strategies for staff such as mentoring programs, and internal and external training courses. Of course, this approach is common practice in most organisations. Perhaps we need to delve deeper into current workforce structures.

Conceivably the answer lies in a shift of responsibilities; as a mentor has always said to me, the art of delegation can be incredibility difficult to learn. When you are at the peak of your professional career delegating responsibility is difficult, because you know that no one else can do the job as well as you can. No matter how competent your delegate is, it is likely that the quality of the output will not be to your expectation. The obvious reasons for this is that you have spent decades building your experience to be the absolute best in your field; we have only just started our career.

Ultimately, no one can do parts of your role as well as you or other people at your experience and skill level, however I ask you this: how did you get to where you are? How did you become the best in your field? Was it not through time, experience, and developing your skills on projects that were delegated to you?

Those with the skills and experience need to learn how delegate more and more often. They need to trust their subordinates to make decisions, and to call some of the shots. The quickest way to develop talent is to throw us in the deepest of deep ends, push us, but always make sure you have enough oversight to intervene if needed; you don’t have to lose control, just give us the bigger picture, and I guarantee we will rise to the challenge.

Finally, under such circumstances we will fail, and probably fail often. We will of course say some stupid things and make some stupid decisions, but that is the process of developing experience; let it happen, push us to make it happen, engage us in the organisation and its goals, explain to us how we contribute to this picture, and make us feel like we are a part of that vision. This is how you retain staff, and unlock their true potential.

Credit: Unsplash – Ian Schneider

Trust and Security

On another note, one of the biggest failings I’ve observed in my short career is the level of trust between practitioners, and particularly trust in younger staff. As former director of the CIA Michael Hayden states “Millennials and related groups simply have different understandings of the words loyalty and secrecy and transparency”, and Major General Dale Meyerrose jokes “[I] don’t think much of Millennials.”

Such generational mistrust is turning young professionals away from the industry; the implied sentiment is that we cannot hold confidences, nor show discretion purely because we may own social media accounts.  Young security professionals, much like young lawyers and doctors can indeed keep confidences, we merely question the necessity of classifying everything. Surprisingly, the advent of Twitter and Facebook has not fundamentally altered our ability to withhold sensitive information, it has merely changed our relationship with such information. Characteristically, the institutionalised response of ‘need-to-know’ and ‘operational security’ will be the catch cry against these new attitudes, solidifying the community’s cult like obsession with exclusion, elitism, and industry gate-keeping.

I must clarify here, this dialogue is not an argument for compromising sensitive information, reducing information safeguards, or destabilising well established and sensible classification schemes. Rather, it is a plea to those who cling to the mantra of secrecy in the face of a post-Snowden, increasingly inter-connected, and transparent world. Attracting young talent is impossible if said talent does not know that our roles exist. The world has changed, our attitudes must change with it.

The quickest way to usher in this change is through the building of trust across the generational divide. It is paramount for the development, retention, and attraction of younger staff, and for the industry as a whole to adapt to the information age. Acknowledge that differing attitudes do not inherently compromise the ability of staff to withhold information, merely that the reasoning behind such actions may be questioned.

Finally, trust in this instance should take the form of responsibilities given, information shared, and exposure to the real issues facing the future of our society.

Safeguarding Australia

The intent of this discussion was to open a dialogue between senior security professionals and the next generation of security industry practitioners – a dialogue that is unfortunately lacking in its current form. At Safeguarding the discussion centred on loyalty, education, and leadership, with input from other young professionals; the audience, some of the most proficient individuals in their respective fields, contributed to a real conversation and opened a dialogue towards bettering the future of the workforce.

The summits key takeaway – Australia’s security workforce is well positioned to share knowledge and experience to the newcomers, but only if they take full advantage of the latent potential found in my generation. While notions of state and the protection of the citizenry only apply at the nation-state level, security professionals of all walks of life have a duty to protect those around them. Safeguarding Australia provided an excellent opportunity to discuss our responsibilities to individuals all around the world, and how we can continue to protect others when the next generation takes over this ongoing and ever increasing responsibility.

Ultimately the realisation that we are on the same side will win out over the sensationalised media spin on the generation wars. Continuing to lament the inabilities of Millennials not only inhibits our future as a society, it also significantly impacts our ability to secure Australia. Continuing to blame others for their own unique generational experiences, attitudes, and life goals is not going to bridge the gap and make a difference. No generation can be the same; work with what you have and get on with the task at hand. Millennials, Generation X, and Baby Boomers; let’s work together to build a better future.



1 Comment on "Progressing inter-generational dialogue in security"

  1. I agree with your overall sentiment Codee & would add that gen x need to engage & build relationship with a younger generation who are “natively digital” & understand how to get the best value from the new “sharing economy”. This is something many gen x’s struggle with, especially those who did not matriculate. Trust never comes naturally or easily – nor should it. However, once established, engagement & then collaboration soon follow & that is when Millenials will reach their potential & show their true worth.

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