Police Interview Newsletter - Generation X: The Backbone of Policing

Generation X - Backbone of Policing
Volume 3, Issue 5
September/October 2004

In his Generations At Work, presented at the Greater Washington Society of Association Executives in 2001, Ron Zemke offered the following remarks:

“At no time in our history have so many and such different generations with such diversity been asked to work shoulder to shoulder, side by side, cubicle by cubicle. The once linear nature of power at work, from older to younger, has been dislocated by changes in life expectancy, increase in longevity and health, as well as changes in lifestyle, technology, and knowledge base.”

“Understanding generational differences is critical to making them work for, not against, your organization. It is critical to creating harmony, mutual respect, and joint effort where today there is often suspicion, mistrust, isolation, and turnover.” (p.1)

Law enforcement agencies are experiencing these same changes! Police officers are struggling with the question of how to effectively “serve and protect” the public in this new century, while cooperating with one another as members of the police agency, given the clash of core values and expectations occurring among “Baby Boomers”, “Generation X”, and “Generation “Y”. Yet, these law enforcement officers must work effectively side by side if this very difficult job is to be accomplished.

Who is "Generation X?" What do they believe and how do they operate in the work place? I know that "Generation Y" is also called "Generation Next", or the "Millennials." So, what are their traits and characteristics? I realize that the "Baby Boomers" are the older people, but where is the age cut-off and what are their core values, strengths, and weaknesses? These are important questions for police officers working on teams with supervisors and/or direct reports from different generations.

This issue of Police Interview, along with the previous issue, is dedicated to promoting a better understanding of generational differences and expectations among law enforcement co-workers. When we are knowledgeable about and respectful of these differences, chances are that more cooperative, collaborative, and caring relationships can be achieved.


Understanding Basic Generational Differences

The following information is quoted directly from a series of tables from “Generational Cliff-Notes®” published by Performance Research Associates, Inc. in 2001.

“Baby Boomers” (born 1943 to 1960, ages 44 to 61 years)

Core ValuesAssetsLiabilities
OptimismService orientedNot naturally “budget minded
Team orientationDrivenUncomfortable with conflict
Personal gratificationWilling to go "extra mile"Reluctant to go against peers
Health and wellnessWant to pleaseMay put process ahead of result
Good at relationshipsPersonal growthOverly sensitive to feedback

Generation Xers (born 1960 to 1980, ages 24 to 44 years)

Core ValuesAssetsLiabilities
Thinking globallyTechnoliteratePoor people skills
TechnoliteracyUnintimidated by authorityCynical

Generation Next, or“Y” (born since 1980, ages 24 years and younger)

Core ValuesAssetsLiabilities
OptimismCollective ActionNeed for supervision/structure
Civic dutyOptimismInexperience handling difficult people
AchievementHeroic spirit
SociabilityMultitasking capabilities
MoralityTechnological savvy
Street smarts


"Gen X" - Line Level Officers and Supervisors

Generation X policemen make up the majority of most law enforcement agency's police force. This 24 to 44 year of age group contains the majority of rookie officers, patrolmen,and supervising sergeants in a typical police agency. "Gen Xers" are a highly diverse group of individuals who value work/home balance, informality, self-reliance, and pragmatism. These officers are highly adaptive and creative problem solvers who intelligently employ the latest technologies and methods in their work.

On the downside, Gen X officers may lack essential people skills and demonstrate significant impatience with those in charge. Often distrustful of authority figures (Police Chief, Majors, Captains), Gen Xers can be cynical and less than supportive of departmental leadership and decision-making. They may see themselves as better equipped to lead and manage than those in charge. But, alas, the "Baby Boomers Rule" (see last issue of Police Interview). Generation X must wait for the current slate of Boomers to retire before the baton of top leadership is passed on to the next generation.


Suggestions to Gen X Officers for Improving Relationships with Boomer Supervisors & Managers

Look for ways to affirm your supervisors Express appreciation for who he is and how he or she contributes to your success. He needs your respect as much as you want his.

Recognize that the chief of police and his management team are honestly searching for solutions that will be satisfying to all concerned. Be more tolerant as they experiment with new structures, concepts, and fads."

Boomers are not "on their way out." They can expect to stay healthier and to work longer than any previous generation. So, seek ways to cooperate with and accept your managers.

Look for ways to support good team functioning in your agency. Though Baby Boomers may understate the value of work/home balance, they have important things to teach about sacrificing for the common good.

Some supervisors have trouble delegating projects to their direct reports. So, when given an opportunity to run with an idea/project, be sure to keep your boss in the loop by offering progress reports and updates.

Don't assume that older officers have quit learning. A USA Today article states that Boomers are "creating a cottage industry" that caters to old dogs learning new tricks. Veteran officers are taking college classes to update their knowledge and training.

Don't question and challenge everything! Some traditions and longstanding policies actually work well and make remarkably good sense. Be pragmatic when pursuing change.

Allow Boomers to help you refine your interpersonal skills. They are generally good at relationships. Look to them as role models for dealing effectively with a wide range of people and situations.

Patiently offer to show older officers what you have learned about computers and new technologies. They want to be up-to-date and part of the 21st century, but may feel overwhelmed or anxious about these new tools and methods.


Messages That Motivate “Gen Xers” (ages 24-44) (quoted directly from Generations At Work, p12)

“Do it your way and enjoy.”

“We've got the newest hardware and software.”

“There aren't a lot of rules here.”

“We're not very corporate.”


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