Above:Four generations of Eagle Scouts read more…(Photo courtesy Jeri Wehrli)

Today’s Scout leaders are working with a new kind of youth. Generation Z are a savvy group that are digital natives, but unlike Millennials, these young pragmatists neither hope nor despair of life, having grown up in a world torn everywhere with war, a widening fear of global warming, and filled with economic insecurity. Most of them developed their values during the housing bubble and great recession; they have lived with a new equality in terms of race and gender, and face same-sex relationships quite differently than their parents.

By its definition, a “generation” is a group of people who were born in approximately the same time frame who share common cultural icons and attitudes. In the last four decades, this group has changed about once every ten years. For example, today we have the “TV generation” and the “YouTube generation.” They are probably camping together at any Scout outing, but the question is, do they understand each other? Can they work well together?

Boy Scouts of America believes that recognizing generational differences and putting them to work in Scouting settings offers today’s youth great opportunities. During the last several years BSA has added generational differences to its training courses to help us know how to work together well. Each of these courses begins with trying to gain an understanding of each other.

A look at generations of Scouting

Gen Z (2001–2015)

  • Digital natives
  • Grew up in a highly sophisticated media and computer environment.
  • Accustomed to simultaneously using smartphone, apps and tablets
  • Live in a highly diverse school environment
  • Use technology to make significant academic inroads
  • Learn in 8 second bites.
  • Believe in climate change
  • Experienced the housing bubble and great recession
  • Store data in the cloud but are wary of data security

Millennials (1982–2000)

  • Incredibly sophisticated
  • Technology wise
  • Immune to traditional marketing/sales pitches
  • Accept racial and ethnic diversity
  • Segmented as an audience (Cable TV, satellite radio, the Internet, e-zines, etc.)
  • Much less brand loyal
  • Flexible and changing in fashion and style
  • Raised in dual income or single parent families
  • Have seen or read about multiple school shootings
  • Live in social networking/chat rooms
  • Advances in genetics
  • Experienced 9/11 and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan

Gen X (1965–1981)

  •  “Latchkey” kids
  • Grew up with the Internet, cell phones, video games and first music videos (MTV)
  • Exposed to a lot of divorce and day care
  • Are highly skeptical
  • Ask: “what’s in it for me”
  • Are the best educated generation
  • Lived during Desert Storm War
  • Watched the Berlin Wall fall





Baby Boomers

  • Enjoyed post War economic boom
  • Grew up affluent
  • Feel privileged
  • Grew up with Television
  • Rejected/redefined
    traditional values
  • Part of student protests
  • Lived through Vietnam, Cold War, Space Race and Civil Rights movement
  • Experienced several assassinations of key national figures
  • Credit cards introduced

Silent Generation

  • Grew up in aftermath of World War I
  • Experienced aftermath of Great Depression and New Deal
  • Grew up with automobiles and airplanes
  • Movies shaped values
  • Grew up during World War II
  • Fought in Korean War
  • Radio widely introduced
  • Telephone widely used
  • Experienced dropping of A and H bombs

Greatest Generation (1901-1924)

  • Very traditional values
  • Frugal spending habits
  • Experienced Nationalism
  • Enjoyed patriotism
  • Grew up during World War I and the Great Depression
  • Men fought in World War II or kept the homefront intact
  • Women took traditionally male jobs to keep nation running
  • Enjoyed the GI Bill
  • Institutionalized racism and segregation


We currently have five major generations participating in our Scouting programs. Each group has different expectations, communication skills, learning styles, commitments, motivation, training, productivity, engagement, feedback, and evaluation styles, just to name a few. When you look at all those contrasting forces shaping values over the generations, you can see chances for conflict and opportunity with each group.

Before you overthink this chart, though, remember that recognizing characteristics by year are just generalities. There will always be individual traits that can be found in any age group. However, groupings like the ones above give us a kind of shorthand to “help us understand some aspect of social change over time.”1

Today’s Scouts are from both the Millennial Generation and beyond—this group is still fairly new to our program. They are likely to be far more similar to each other than they are to Gen Xers, Boomers, or the Greatest Generation. Theirs is a world of electronics and technology.

This is a challenging world, and we must do all we can to give them the skills to confront the difficulties that we—and that they—will face.

Think back to 1984

Last month we had fun thinking back 30 years—back to 1984, the year the movie Back to the Future came out. The movie’s writers got some things right and they were way off on others. But take a minute and think back 30 years to the Scout rooms you sat in at school or church. What is the same? What has changed?

In most buildings there is that same old chalk board; there are walls and carpets and chairs; unfortunately often there are old VCR/TVs and DVD players. In most locations there is not a fast wireless Internet connection. In spite of that, nearly every youth is connected through their smart phones. And of course, there are still Scouts and Scouters (or at least we hope).

The Scouts themselves have a huge impact on our program because of their changing interests and technology. Young parents and the rise of single-parent households demand Scouting be convenient and accessible for their busy schedules. Experienced members (aka Ancients) still curate program knowledge to help keep continuity and tradition in the BSA.

Risk Minimizers Not Risk Takers

So much has changed in the environment for these new Scouts. According Erica McWilliam, “Gen Zs are more likely to be risk minimisers than risk takers.” She goes on to explain that this new generation will spend “a great deal of their time as ‘home bodies’, staying close to their digital gadgets and to the people who fund them—mostly their parents.

“What little time they spend outside is likely to be in structured activity that is organised by adults who may also act as their chauffeurs. They agree with their parents that the ‘outside’ world is not a safe place to wander around in, so their preference is for screen-based play indoors where they stay connected with online peers.

“As risk minimisers, they are more likely to save than to spend when it comes to their own money. They are also more abstemious in their alcohol intake, and they take fewer risks with drugs than their elders. As a more sober and prudent generation, they are less likely to fight at school or to have ‘risky sex’. A downside of their risk-minimising propensity is a preference for ‘low challenge’ learning tasks leading to ‘easy success’ over ‘high challenge’ tasks that demand intellectual risk-taking. So staying in the grey of uncertainty for prolonged periods of time is not one of their strengths when it comes to engaging in learning tasks.”2

So how does all this apply to Scouting?

Knowing all this you can see that you cannot just fall back on to your own Scouting experiences. What you can do is understand and respect them and you should expect to be understood and respected. Most of you need to become a coach.

In Wood Badge we offer two examples of this. First, let’s say you are conducting a leadership training course for younger Scouts with your older teens serving as staff. You have some multi-generational adult advisors and ten 15 to 17 year-old Millennials. The youth staff feels they should totally run the show and make all of the decisions. They do not want any input from you as the adult advisor.

So you agree that most of the presentations and activities can and should be run by your youth staff, but in the end you are responsible for all aspects of the course. This ranges from safety to budget to the final implementation of the training material. The buck stops with you. The youth staff is great and full of talent, but needs some coaching.

So as one of the Ancients, who runs the show—you or them?  What do you do when the youth make a decision you do not agree with? How can the expectations and characteristics of each of the generations factor into this conflict?

The good news is it is not “us against them.”  There is no right or wrong generational style or value. Knowing that, as Scouters we must find a way to work together as a united team, across the generations of Scouting.

Duke with Coach KLook at this second example from from the sporting world contrasting style of Indianapolis Coach K (Coach Mike Krzyzewski of Duke University) and that of Brad Stevens and his team from Butler University during 2010 NCAA Final Four. Coach K is a Baby Boomer who taught classic basketball fundamentals. “He is a Top 5 coach, has won four national championships, and is a legend destined for the Hall of Fame. His Team came out for pre-game warm-ups all wearing exactly the same attire, performing consistent team drills, and behaving in a very disciplined manner…

1280px-Brad_Stevens_talking_with_AJ_Graves“Coach Brad is a Gen Xer who is on his second career (his first job was in advertising for corporate America). Now, he also understands basketball very well and really knows how to build teams. His team participated in pre-game warm-ups dressed in all varieties of Butler-wear, preparing in their individual ways, with many wearing iPods, listening to music, and enjoying the moment.

Although there is still an “old-school” mentality when it comes to sports fundamentals, we can all be reminded how important it is to adjust your beliefs as a leader based on whom you are leading. While Duke won the Game, the Butler Team gave Coach K and his Team more of a challenge than anyone thought they would.

“Teaching is one thing, but building a cohesive team is often more than simply providing direction. Sometimes you have to bend and let the Team do some of ‘their’ thing.”

“… Now the question is this: Was the leader serving the needs of his followers, or were the followers being led by a transformational leader? Either way, both of those basketball teams were prepared for the challenge both mentally and physically.”3

Young people respect and are willing to learn from well-intentioned people of their parents’ and grandparents’ generations. If they know you care, they might just want to see how much you know. The youth of today are open to partnership—be sure that YOU are. They have much to share and to say, so listen to them. Find your shared vision and make it a reality.

Scouting tomorrow will be as different from today as it was 30 years ago. By using Wood Badge leadership skills, we will be able to work together to create the greatest change in Scouting history and equip our next generation of leaders to build upon our legacy—a legacy of positive influence on every generation, including the ones to come. It still is after all, the mission of the Boy Scouts of America is to prepare young people to make ethical and moral choices over their lifetimes by instilling in them the values of the Scout Oath and Law.

How is your troop, team or crew using diversity to overcome the generation gaps in your Scout units?

1Erica McWilliam, “Teaching Gen Z” 19 FEB 2015, Queensland University of Technology, Australia Ibid
Wood Badge—Leadership for Scouting;Leadership for America, 2016 Staff Guide, Boy Scouts of America


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