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Generations Apart: Xers and Boomers in the Officer Corps

Authored by Dr. Leonard Wong. | October 2000

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This monograph addresses the junior officer attrition problem by identifying and discussing the disparity between senior and junior officers in terms of generational differences. Officers from the Baby Boom Generation think and perceive things differently than officers from Generation X. Using empirical evidence to support the generational differences literature, the author points out that Generation X officers are more confident in their abilities, perceive loyalty differently, want more balance between work and family, and are not intimidated by rank. Additionally, while pay is important to Generation X officers, it alone will not keep junior officers from leaving. The solutions presented in the monograph range from strategic policies changing the Army as an organization to operational leadership actions affecting the face-to-face interaction between senior and junior officers.


In July of 1998, the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel (ODCSPER) released a message addressing the growing concern of junior officers departing the Army. The message stated that,

ODCSPER analysts confirm that officer retention is down slightly for all grades except lieutenant and major. However, the downturn in retention is not significant, and rates remain within bounds of pre-drawdown rates.1

Less than 2 years later, the Vice Chief of Staff of the Army (VCSA) sent another message on the same topic. This time, however, the message stated that,

. . .in the last 10 years, the voluntary attrition rate for captains has risen from 6.7% to an all-time high of 10.6%. If we, as senior leaders, don?t take action now to turn this around, we may not be able to meet our future requirements.2

Shortly after the VCSA?s message was sent to commanders, the Secretary of the Army and the Chief of Staff of the Army set up a Blue Ribbon panel tasked with developing specific recommendations on how the Army could stop the exodus of junior officers in the near, mid, and long-term future.3

In less than 2 years, the Army shifted from denial of a junior officer retention problem to a situation where the most senior Army leadership became involved in seeking help to staunch the flow of captains out of the Army. How could Army senior leaders miss the signals of an attrition problem? How could the Army?s senior leadership not see junior officer resignation numbers increasing or hear the growing discontent at the junior officer level?

One answer is that the Army?s downsizing masked the increasing departure of junior officers. In the process of drawing down a force of 780,000 to an Army of 480,000, so many junior officers were enticed, encouraged, or induced to leave that the resignation of junior officers became routine and viewed as generally good for the organization. Downsizing was painful, but the huge number of junior officers that left the Army was viewed as an expected and accepted consequence. The continued attrition that occurred after the conclusion of the downsizing was thought to be a temporary state while the organization recovered from the drawdown.

In addition to desensitizing the force to junior officers leaving, the downsizing had a far more subtle effect. Eight years of downsizing affected the attitudes of the survivors?those officers left behind. Research in organizational behavior had well documented the detrimental effects on survivors as a consequence of drawing down an organization.4 The Army as an organization was no exception. The psychological bond between officer survivors and the Army was weakened and redefined.5 As competition in the now trimmer Army became keener, a stifling atmosphere of perfection known as the ?zero defects mentality? along with notions of careerism emerged.6 This is the environment encountered by today?s junior officers soon after commissioning.

The attitudinal effects of the downsizing were overshadowed, however, by reduced budgets and increased operating tempo (OPTEMPO). With the Army?s attention focused on adjusting to a post-Cold War period, the attitudinal changes in the junior officer population largely escaped the notice of the senior Army leadership. Instead, debate arose over the role of peacekeeping, humanitarian assistance, a shrinking labor market from which to recruit, a rush to digitization, and the need for a larger budget slice. Thus, in addition to the numbing effects of forced attrition due to downsizing, the changing roles and missions of the Army after the fall of the Berlin Wall shifted the Armyleadership?s attention away from monitoring its people to reevaluating the Army?s relevance in a post-Cold War world.7


The trends in junior officer attrition continue to point to a worsening situation. Early indications from year group 1995 retention statistics show no let up in the exodus. Two additional factors complicate the situation. First, attrition for Baby Boomer officers is on the rise, too. As retention rates for lieutenant colonels and colonels drop and continue to decline, the officer corps inventory is starting to look more like a trapezoid than the traditional pyramid. Second, the newly-minted second lieutenants that will enter the Army this year are not Generation X. Instead, they are Generation Y?the Nintendo Generation, Generation 2001, or Generation Next. Nexters bring a totally different perspective than Xers or Boomers. While it is too early to tell how they will approach the workplace, our experience with Generation X tells us that we had better be ready. Understanding generational differences will become even more critical with three unique generations in the officer corps.

Generation X officers are different. They are not slackers, but are extremely competent and willing to work hard. They are, however, voicing their opinions and leaving the Army. This monograph will fall short of its objectives if battalion commanders nod their heads in agreement with the previous paragraphs, yet convince themselves that the situation can only be remedied through policies at the Department of the Army level. Likewise, if policymakers defer to direct leadership as the sole solution to the junior officer attrition problem, the intent of this monograph will not be fulfilled either.

It will take both policy and leadership working in concert to keep our captains.

One common reaction to the junior officer exodus is to call for calm and assume that this crisis, like all previous ones, will also eventually pass. Somehow we convince ourselves that, because the Army is a big enough organization with a history of weathering all sorts of crises, it can absorb this one too. Realistically, the Army will survive through this crisis?the Army always goes rolling along. But like a family who loses a child at an early age, there will always be a sense of loss over the potential that is never realized. Our captains are leaving and that says something about who they are and what the Army has become. It is time we took notice and did something about it.


1. Message from Office of Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel, Headquarters, Department of the Army, July 28, 1998. The message was in response to concerns over the increasing attrition rates of junior officers. Notice that the message focuses on the static attrition rates in 1998 rather than the dynamic trend of junior officer attrition rates overall.

2. Message from the Vice Chief of Staff, Army, Headquarters, Department of the Army, February 15, 2000.

3. ?Blue Ribbon Panels To Study Leadership And Training,? Army Public Affairs Press Release #00?024, April 17, 2000.

4. For example, see David Noer, Healing the Wounds: Overcoming the Trauma of Layoffs and Revitalizing Downsized Organizations, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1993.

5. For an analysis of the effects of the Army downsizing on those left behind, see Leonard Wong and Jeffrey McNally, ?Downsizing the Army: Some Policy Implications Affecting the Survivors,? Armed Forces and Society, Vol. 20, Winter 1994, pp. 199-216.

6. A reduction in command positions and the departure of many officers with low promotion potential left the relatively ?high-quality? survivors competing for advancement. See General Dennis Reimer, ?Leadership for the 21st Century: Empowerment, Environment and the Golden Rule,? Military Review, Vol. 76, January-February 1996, pp. 5-9.

7. For example, the Army?s main research engine for leadership, the Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences, was downsized of nearly all of its leadership research capability in 1996.