The (slow) march of the Millennials

This is a long one (apologies), I really need to work on my brevity 🙂 I know that there are individuals that don’t sit squarely within these definitions and that they represent a broad brush approach, they do however give us a ‘broad’ view on what is coming down the line – and therefore they are pretty useful!

Some of you may have have heard, seen or even discussed Millennials, Baby Boomers, Generation X, Y and Z, or even the newer Generation G. They are usually used in a business or journalistic context, and have perhaps gained the apt label: Megatrends. They refer to groups of people that have been born before particular time boundaries that have been shaped by their experience of the world. If you look at it in terms of an example, those people that directly experienced World War II, have a different view of the world from those who have not. Each generation has these defining moments, and a certain school experience, built within a particular surrounding social/political environment.


I am a Millennial, although they are also referred to as Generation Y. If you want to read about Millennials, there are things all over the web that you can access via Google, but here is a quick breakdown. By and large, the senior positions within companies that sit at the top of the FTSE 100 and most public services, will be currently run by latter end Baby Boomers and possibly Generation X. It won’t shock you to see that there are distinct differences – and therefore clashes between the generations…

workplace characteristics

The external workplace that the police inhabit is set to become a majority Millennial workplace in either 2015-16, in the cops the best guess is around 2020. The lag in between is due to the particular nature of policing, with long tenure employment and large cohort intakes. As we have just seen the longest lag in police promotions and movement that we have ever seen, the gap in the leadership ranks has widened, with a larger percentage of Boomers and Generation X holding more positions of control as the hierarchy has shrunk due to austerity. The ‘catch up’ period is coming, but will there be an ‘equalling out’ of leadership responsibility, or will the Boomers and Generation X simply reinforce their level of control over the workplace even further? Only time will tell.

The one thing that is certain, is that the nature of work is changing rapidly. It’s becoming ever-more mobile, dispersed, on demand and technologically enabled. If you think about the way that the police currently operate, you may note that we are nowhere near that, and there will also be a ‘catching up’ period necessary in the very near future – simply through the gap in what the public expect, and what we actually manage to deliver. If people can track their parcel and delivery driver for their Ebay purchase, speak with the driver and organise alternative levels of service, will this expectation transfer at some point to the level of service expected of police officers?


The reason I have written about this blog, is that the police work environment is set to change quite dramatically in the UK due to the Leadership Review, and the types of changes that are coming are tailored for the workforce that will be entering the police in the future. Millennial workers challenge authority regularly and dislike rigid hierarchies and structures. They communicate digitally and prefer it over face-to-face communication sometimes. The work to live and value balance in their lives, and are well educated, often carrying high student debt. A good report on these traits is here if you want a read, although there are many fully researched studies that show remarkable similarities in outcome.

Any police leaders looking to the future have a very tricky course to navigate. There will be a cadre of senior leaders who are distinctly Baby Boomer/Generation X. These people will have been promoted and supported throughout the performance era in policing. Looking back on it fondly (or not at all fondly, if I’m honest), the themes were situated strongly in Standard Operating Procedures, ‘business process’, compliance and audit. People were resources to be deployed, and the reign of specialised competence remained prevalent. Silos of specialisms characterised by continual competition between themselves made up the work environment, and ‘remit’ ruled the roost. Work was compartmentalised, chopped up into digestable pieces, and strewn across policing, generating huge amounts of waste and ambiguity in industrial levels of handovers.

My opinion of the above era aside, if you look at the charts above, you can directly map particular traits into those workplace conditions, and really see how they ran in sync. You may also be able to see how those young in service railed against them. This railing was however quite muted, as hierarchy imposed its stringent silence upon dissent. Even if you disagreed, it was far safer to stay quiet and just try and make a difference – despite the workplace conditions that – in some cases – actively worked against that.

There are countless articles that research the unintended consequences of the performance era, across many public services. Austerity has however – contrary to the intended aims – actually embedded a static position of leadership in the police. There is almost a five year gap in promotions in some forces, and even then there will be many with lengthy ‘acting’ or temporary experience prior to that. As the present leadership cohort has remained, the question to pose is one of pragmatism; is it likely that a dearth of ‘fresh’ supervisors entering the leadership domain has caused a temporary lull in progression towards the next generational shift?

That was a long sentence. Has austerity – instead of jump-starting ‘reform’ – actually forced conditions within police leadership that work against practical change?

A New Era

Building new workplace conditions for a changing workforce is very difficult within the policing environment. Let’s look at what happens when you discuss particular traits in context:

Transitory Careerists

This means that the average level of time spent with single companies is dropping incrementally. Even if you discount some of the research that indicates it isn’t quite as bad as many say, the researched figure in America is now 4.4 years, whereas here in the UK it sits at approximately double that. You may think that an average of 9 years isn’t too bad, but the figures are buoyed considerably by an ageing population, with young people far more likely to change careers. As the percentage of Millennials increase in the workplace, this figure will continue to fall. If we conservatively guess that it will sit at approximately 6 years by 2020, it’s fair to say that we need people to be able to drop in and out of policing not because it suits the business, but because it will suit the workforce… Many have speculated on the opposite of this, “it’s a ploy to save money etc.” The truth is that to commit to exist and compete for people in a time where the entire workforce will have changed, is a pretty important step to take.

Educated, value driven future employees

This is an important discussion to have. A recognition that the external environment in policing has travelled faster in terms of accreditation and supported transition between public services is a fairly painful one. It says a lot about our current workforce, who are operating in a high risk, high responsibility workplace, without any external recognition for that. Policing does a lot of training, but the evidence tells us that classroom based learning accounts for approximately 10% of learning that needs to take place, with the vast amount of learning sitting in peer-to-peer influence and ‘on the job’ experience. (the other 90%) That we continue to ‘train’ our officers in a classroom envt. may frustrate any efforts at ‘real’ change, and studies have also shown that NCALT sits at around 0% efficacy for actual behavioural change.

Some may say, ‘Well if this is the case, why would you want to put a degree in place?’ Firstly, it brings policing into the modern work environment, allowing greater transferability for future recruits (note: future recruits). Secondly, the proposed degree will have a high amount of ‘on the job’ learning, peer-to-peer learning, and perhaps more importantly, self driven reflective practice. What does this mean? It basically means that the practitioner does a lot of their own learning by looking back on their experiences, and trying to improve upon them. Education (note: not training) also encourages objective evaluation (critical thinking). Although some may speculate that the current environment will not support this critical thinking, as the percentage of Millennial leaders increases, it will be a vital part of future practice.

If the next generation of workers needs to feel like they are making a difference, surely it would help to actually ‘know’ that they are? This is where education comes in. There are other reasons for improving objective analysis skills, including a rise in the regulatory environment and increasing complexity of work, these too play into the ‘need for change’ mix.

I don’t want to dwell on this, the argument on both sides is complex. It is however a change aimed for the future (possibly even past 2019), rather than one that seeks to change the ‘now’.

Collective/Participative Leadership

This is a large part of the Millennial need, and it is enabled by technology. Millennials are tech savvy and comfortable on social media. Baby Boomers and Generation X prefer titles, recognition and direct communication. This clash has been most visible in the police use of social media – particularly twitter. Here is the Kings Fund’s view on what Collective Leadership is:

“Collective leadership means everyone taking responsibility for the success of the organisation as a whole – not just for their own jobs. It requires organisations to distribute leadership power to wherever expertise, capability and motivation sit within organisations.”

This supports the future of the Advanced Specialist Practitioner, the removal of hierarchy as the sole provider of expertise, and it chimes directly against the, ‘Do it your way, forget the rules,’ need of Generation X. It requires the sharing of knowledge, not the hoarding of it, and it rests fundamentally on the need for a shared goal. This is values/mission led, group orientated, high trust, networked leadership. Some may say that it is the antithesis of the current leadership environment in the cops, and in many cases I think that they would be right.

Why this may need to be slow

I mentioned earlier about the ‘slow down’ caused by austerity within public services. I encourage the reader (be they cop or otherwise) to look around and see if they can find any Millennials in places of senior leadership in policing. I would hazard – and this is a total guess – that the actual amount will be minuscule. With the current promotion structure as it stands, where experience and time served (read Baby Boomers and Generation X) hold the most value, how quickly are there going to be any in senior leadership? This is despite the fact that they will make up over 50% of the workplace in around three years. If that isn’t a recipe for a wicked cultural problem, I don’t know what is…

How can this be mitigated?

  • The leaders currently in place can alter behaviour in order to better represent the growing numbers of Millennials in their ranks, invite their input and involve them in designing future change.
  • Millennials can take some ownership, instead of feeling disconnected, and actively lobby for change that they wish to see.
  • The service can facilitate ‘jumps’ in leadership by removing barriers, reducing ranks, and starting to mirror the external environment more closely. Talent schemes may be used to push those younger in service through to decision making positions.

This isn’t an exhaustive list, but they are some some suggestions that may help to navigate the bumpy road of the future with a little less dissonance. The truth is that the current/recent external environment has created an internal environment that frustrates the very ‘reform’ that it sought to enable. It’s left a heady mess of cultural conflict as older generations of leaders now seek to navigate the murky world of motivating Millennials, without having any Millennial counsel. The nature of work itself is changing rapidly through technology, with Millennials in the best position to steer the ship, but without any hands on the tiller…

The future of workforce development looks increasingly complicated; maybe it’s time to involve the workforce in the design of that development? Without some element of ‘together’, it may continue to operate as it does now, leaving a generation of skilled leaders in its wake.


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