The Generational Shift in Navy Medicine – Thriving in the 21st Century

Cmdr. Scott A. Olivolo, Navy Medicine Support Command Credentialing Director

By Cmdr. Scott A. Olivolo, Navy Medicine Support Command Credentialing Director, MSC, USN(RC)  

As health care leaders, the need to recognize and adapt our mindset to the generational changes in our global workforce is greater than ever. Arguably, at no other point in history have the differences between how each generation approaches work, personal life, and service to the community been so dramatic. This is especially true in Navy Medicine. 

The millennial generation was  born between 1982 and 2000, are nearly 80 million strong, and comprise the fastest-growing segment of the global workforce to date. Millennials join three other generations in today’s workforce – Generation X (Gen-X) (born from 1965-1981), baby boomers (born from 1946-1964), and traditionalists (born before 1946). I will discuss just the baby boomers, Generation X, and millennials since traditionalists represent a very small segment of Navy Medicine’s total workforce. Clearly, all three generations have a very different point of view by which they view the workplace.   

Baby Boomers, as a group, are workaholics who view work as an exciting adventure. This is clearly understandable as boomers stereotypically focused on achieving and getting ahead, since they grew up watching their parents toil endlessly to give their kids what they did not have. As such, they understand the meaning of working your way up through the hierarchy. Leadership styles are consensus-driven and collegial—team effort is valued, and holding meetings is seen as a positive return-on-investment.  In-person communication is preferred, and verbal praise is less important to this group. Given the current and evolving economic climate, boomers understandably focus more on pay and receiving a bigger title as a reward for their efforts. In terms of work-life balance, there is none. Living is working and working is living.

Generation X, unlike their baby boomer parents, pushed for a work-life balance which resulted in much of the flexibility in the workplace today. Their leadership style is all about equality and challenging paradigms. Their interactive style is stereotypically very entrepreneurial, and as such, communications are frequent and direct. Although money is important, workplace stability, freedom and flexibility trumps the big office or fancy title. To Gen-Xers, the words, “do it your way” or “forget the Standard Operating Procedure Manual” are messages that clearly resonate as motivating factors.

 Millennials, however, appear completely different due to close parental involvement, the search for meaning in the workplace, high expectations for fulfillment and success, the need for speed from multitasking, instant access to almost everything via the computer and social networking, and the feeling they have free reign to express their opinions. Their interactive style is very participative, and communications via email, tweet, and text are the norm. The millennial generation is accustomed to instantaneous feedback from the boss—and perhaps the boss’s boss, too. The key message that resonates with millennials and what motivates them is the opportunity to work with other bright, creative people on high-performing teams. Research also suggests the majority of millennials also value the opportunity to “give back via my company.”  

How does Navy Medicine leverage these differences into opportunities? On many fronts, Navy Medicine is already leading the way in attracting and retaining a new generation of talent.  However, as an organization committed to retaining the best and brightest, we can and should always do more.  The following are a few examples.

  • Manage Expectations. Sponsor programs in the Navy have been very effective and ensure that new check-ins/hires receive their proper pay and allowances, attend command indoctrination class, and if they have a really good sponsor, help with finding housing, places of worship, or other recreational activities. Command’s can survey millennials who are flourishing in their jobs to ask how their expectations were met or not met.  Although the Navy is doing extremely well recruiting, it should not stop us from asking these tough questions
  • Expanded Mentoring Programs.   Consider assigning each new hire/check-in a buddy as well as an executive mentor (E-7 or above for enlisted and 0-5 and above for officers) to see them through the first year of employment/tour of duty.   If done correctly, the feeling of connectedness will remain as the new check-in has somebody to go to for any questions throughout their assignment and beyond.  These folks will brag to other millennials on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter about how much they love the Navy.
  • Sell the Deeds and Volunteerism.   “Grown up Digital,” by Don Tapscott, cites a Higher Education Research Institute study from 2005 in which 71 percent of all incoming college freshman stated they volunteered on a weekly basis. The big takeaway here is that most millennials have found the time in both high school and college to volunteer in their communities.  The Navy has its signature Combined Federal Campaign programs and Navy Relief Fund Drives; however, do we offer days-off/special liberty for volunteering?  Does your command sponsor a special project in the community? Whatever it is, make sure it is marketed to your millennials so they can get involved.
  • Find the Meaning Behind the Mission.   To most of us in senior management positions, Navy Medicine’s mission and vision statements are ingrained into words and deeds.  However, if our millennials either do not know the mission or perceive it as not important, we probably have some work to do.  Engaging millennials in such a way that directly links their work to the mission of the organization will yield significant returns for Navy Medicine.  Additionally, communicating the goals of Navy Medicine during each fitness report/evaluation/review will help draw mental maps for our teammates, thereby connecting them to the mission.
  • Recruiters who can sell “Meaning.”  Although Navy Medicine and Navy Recruiting have spiced-up their websites and brochures to reflect millennials’ desires for meaningful work, are we as leaders adjusting our sales pitch at conferences and university visits to chat about such issues?  How are we engaging millennials who are now entering residency or fellowship training programs?  We must be able to answer millennials questions in regard to, “What can I do NOW for Navy Medicine” to contribute to the mission.   Navy Medicine’s commitment to humanitarian relief and disaster assistance efforts will resonate with both millennials and Generation X.

In the end, Navy Medicine will benefit greatly over the next decade from the synergies of all three generations, from the baby boomers commitment to change the world, to Generation X’s belief in a balanced life, and the millennials passion to collaborate and make a difference.   By accepting each generation’s differences and leveraging our people’s unique talents to our strategic advantage, Navy Medicine will be uniquely positioned to meet our mission now and in the years to come.




Lancaster, Lynn and Stillman, David.  The M-Factor, How the Millennial Generation is Rocking the Workplace. 2010.

Tapscott, Don. Grown up Digital. 2009.

 Special thanks to Cmdr. Barry Adams, MSC, USN; Cmdr. Gail Chapman, MSC, USN; LT. Cmdr. Sean Lando, MSC, USN; and Cmdr. Sonia Givens;  for their inspirational leadership on the Force Structure Team of the BUMED Executive Steering Committee and for their time and effort in the development and refinement of this article.